Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Longhouse remains rewrite Iceland’s settlement history

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

The Landnámabók (the Icelandic Book of Settlement) records that the first Norse settler on Iceland was one Ingólfur Arnarson who left Norway in 874 and built a farmstead on the site what is today Reykjavík. Remains of longhouses from around that time have been discovered under the city, as we know from the high-precision dating made possible by the layer of volcanic tephra ash deposited in 871 A.D. (plus or minus two years margin of error) by an eruption at the Torfajökull volcano field. A site on the Stöðvarfjörður fjord has not one but two structures that significantly predate the tephra ash and the official settlement of Iceland.

Archaeological remains were discovered at the Stöð farm by accident in 2003 and the first excavations began in 2015. Since then, archaeologists have found the remains of two structures, both of them under the tephra layer. They are Viking Age longhouses. The most recent one dates to between 860 and 870 and is 103 feet long, conspicuously larger than other early Settlement Era longhouses found in Reykjavík. The one discovered during hotel development in 2015 was 66 feet long.

Excavation leader Bjarni F. Einarsson:

“It is also the richest longhouse ever excavated in Iceland. We have found 92 beads and 29 silver objects, including Roman and Middle-Eastern coins.” The bead horde at Stöð is twice as large as the next two largest found in Iceland combined. In fact, it is one of the very largest ever found at a Viking-Age site in all of Scandinavia.

The older of the two longhouses is even huger at approximately 130 feet long. Radiocarbon analysis of barley grains found in the longhouse layer dates it to around 800 A.D., seven decades before Ingólfur Arnarson set food on Iceland’s shores. The younger farmhouse was built within the collapsed walls of the older one.

Bjarni’s theory is that the older longhouse was a seasonal hunting camp. He believes such camps were operated in other parts of Iceland as well. “We have found several sites in Iceland where we can confirm human presence before the year 874. The site on Aðalstræti in downtown Reykjavík is one. Another is Vogur in Hafnir [Southwest Iceland].”

Seasonal camps would have played a vital role in the settlement of Iceland, extracting valuable resources and thus financing further exploration and settlement. Recent paleoecological research suggests the valuable resource that drew them there was walrus ivory. Walrus ivory was in high demand in Europe in the ninth century, as were the animals’ blubber and hides. It was also valuable: a single walrus tusk was worth the annual wages of one farm worker.

The very name of the farm supports Einarsson’s position. Stöð means camp or base.

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Tree rings reveal St Giles Kirk history

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020

Core samples taken from the great five-story timber frame inside the St Giles Kirk’s iconic crown tower in Edinburgh have returned unexpected dendrochronological results.

The original St. Giles Kirk was a Romanesque church founded by David I of Scotland in 1124. It’s not known when construction was completed, but the church was put to the torch by Richard II of England in 1385. It was rebuilt in Gothic style and then extensively altered in the 15th century. There are no records of when the frame was installed, and few records of when the spire was built. Chroniclers report that the church had a masonry spire by 1387 and that storks nested on it in 1416.

The South East Scotland Oak Dendrochronology project (SESOD) has been studying historic timbers to create a detailed tree-ring record for native oaks from southeastern Scotland. They thought the St Giles timbers might date to just after the construction of the masonry tower and hoped they were felled in SE Scotland, but because the supply of old growth oak was almost gone by then, most of the timber used in 15th century Scotland was imported from Scandinavia.

The dendrochronological analysis instead dated the timbers to the second half of 14th century when the crown spire was first completed. The wood came from northeastern Scotland. It was felled from the Royal Forest of Darnaway in Morayshire, source of the timber used in the construction of Stirling Castle, in the winters of 1453-4 and 1459-60. Some of the trees used were more than 300 years. This is the most recent use of Darnaway oaks known. Shortly thereafter the forest was closed to logging.

The new dendro-dates show this tower was greatly altered in the mid-15th century at a time when many other structural changes were being made at St Giles. The new dates infer the completion of the crown spire as being after 1460 and probably by 1467 when the church was granted collegiate status from the pope, although the crown spire we see today was repaired and much altered in 1653. […]

Amongst the patrons of the extensive mid-15th century construction work at St Giles are James II and, following his untimely death in 1460, his widow Mary of Guelders, who was regent of Scotland between 1460 and 1463 for their son, the infant James III. Their arms appear on shields on The King’s Pillar in the choir of St Giles, interpreted as a tribute to the late king by his devout queen.

The Forest of Darnaway was forfeited to the crown after the defeat of Archibald, the Black Douglas Earl of Moray, at the Battle of Arkinholm in 1455, which may explain why timber from Darnaway was used to build the bell-frame in the tower at St Giles, through this royal patronage.

Although the timber was felled when James II was still alive, its supply to St Giles may have occurred when Mary of Guelders was regent, between 1460-1463, after James’ death in the summer of 1460. This question could be investigated further with more sampling as the precise felling dates are from the lower levels of the structure.

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Poltergeist, Norwegian style

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

A Viking grave has been discovered under the floor of a private home in Bodø, central Norway. The Kristensens were renovating the family home and pulled the floorboards to install new insulation under the bedroom floor. After digging up a layer of sand and the stone rubble underneath that, something shiny caught their eye. At first they thought the small dark circular object might be the wheel from an old toy. A little more digging turned up a heavily corroded iron axe and a few other iron pieces.

At this point Mariann Kristensen contacted Nordland County officials and they dispatched archaeologists from the Tromsø Museum to investigate the finds. The bead, axe and other objects appear to date to the early Middle Ages, around 950-1050 A.D. They have been transferred to the museum for study and conservation.

Archaeologists have begun a larger excavation of the find site; ie, under the Kristensens’ house. County archaeologist Martinus Hauglid thinks it’s most likely a grave from the Iron Age or Viking Age. The stones the Kristensens found under the sand layer are probably part of a burial cairn.

[Hauglid] said he had never heard of a find being made underneath a house.

“I never heard of anything like that and I’ve been in business for nearly 30 years,” he said. “They did a magificent job, they reported it to use as soon as they got the suspicion that it actually was something old.

The house had been in the family since it was built by Mariann’s great-grandfather in 1914. There is no family legend of Vikings in eternal slumber under the bedroom floor.

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Dump truck delivers topsoil, 9th c. Anglo-Saxon silver brooch

Sunday, May 24th, 2020

A rare Anglo-Saxon brooch that was once part of the most unwittingly valuable dump truck full of a topsoil is on its way to being declared treasure. It was discovered by a novice metal detectorist in a field near Swaffham, Norfolk, on May 9th, 2019. Numbers that should forever be his lotto picks, because it was literally the third time he’d ever gone metal detecting. He had no idea what he’d found, at first thinking it was Victorian. He reported his lucky strike to the local finds liaison for the Portable Antiquities Scheme who identified it as an Anglo-Saxon silver disc brooch in Trewhiddle style dating to the mid- to late 9th century.

The brooch is made of silver with niello inlay. It is three inches in diameter and is complete with the pin mechanism on the back. The front features a central cross with concave arms over a saltire of open-work tongue-shaped lobes. Inside the lobes of the saltire are what appear to be three stacked pots with large, round flowers growing out of the top and bottom pots. The spaces between the saltire and the arms of the cross are decorated with zoomorphic figures typical of the Trewhiddle style. Around the edges of the disc are swirling foliar designs. Five domed bosses are riveted on the arms and center of the cross.

The Norfolk County Council dispatched archaeologists to the find site to excavate it. Beneath the layer where the brooch was found, the team unearthed a 19th century plough, so they knew the brooch was likely deposited on the field rather than having slumbered there for centuries. The landowner confirmed he had recently had a load of soil dumped on the field, but he didn’t know where it came from having simply “flagged down” a truck.

Topsoil deliveries usually don’t range far afield so the soil was almost certainly local, and this would not be the first time exceptional Anglo-Saxon brooches were found in the environs. The Pentney Hoard which includes six open-work silver disc brooches in Trewhiddle style, was discovered by a gravedigger in a churchyard not 10 miles away in 1978. The swirled foliar border, cross, saltire and bosses of the newly-discovered brooch are very similar to one in the Pentney Hoard, only in even better condition. Norfolk County Council’s senior finds archaeologist Steven Ashley believes the pieces were made by the same hand, or at least the same workshop.

The coroner’s inquest to determine the brooch treasure status has been opened. It is scheduled to close on June 9th, and it’s pretty much a given that the brooch will be officially declared treasure.

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Norway to excavate first Viking ship burial mound in 100 years

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

In October 2018, a geophysical survey of a field in Halden, southeastern Norway, revealed the presence of Viking ship burial. The landowner had applied for a soil drainage permit and because the field is adjacent to the monumental Jell Mound, archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) inspected the site first. Using a four-wheeler with a georadar mounted to the front of it. The high-resolution ground-penetrating radar picked up the clear outline of a ship 20 meters (65 feet) long.

The ship was found just 50 cm (1.6 feet) under the surface. It was once covered by a burial mound like its neighbor, but centuries of agricultural work ploughed it away. Subsequent investigation of the area found the outlines of at least 11 other burial mounds around the ship, all of them long-since ploughed out as well. The georadar also discovered the remains of five longhouses.

In order to get some idea of the ship’s age, condition and how much of it is left, in September of 2019, NIKU archaeologists dug a test pit was dug to obtain a sample of the wood of the keel. The keel was of a different type to ones from other Viking ship burials known in Norway. It is thinner and smaller than usual. The two-week investigation and analysis of the sample found that the ship does indeed date to the early Viking era. The wood was felled between the late 8th century and the start of the 10th century. 

In more distressing news, the analysis of the sample revealed that the wooden remains were under severe attack from fungus. The use of fertilizer on the farmland above the ship encourages the fungal growth and not only is the keel plagued by soft rot, the remains even at the deepest point where preservation conditions are the best possible are under acute distress.

Norway’s government has responded to the archaeological emergency by allocating 15.6m kroner (about $1.5 million) to excavate the Gjellestad Viking Ship and get it out of the ground before it rots to nothingness. While other Viking ship burials have been excavated in recent years, the last Viking ship burial mound to be excavated was the Oseberg ship in 1904-1905. If the Norwegian parliament approves the budget, excavation of the Gjellestad Ship is slated to begin in June.

[Jan Bill, curator of the Viking Ship Collection at the Museum of Cultural History,] said that even if the vessel was less well preserved that the team hoped, it could still provide important new information on Viking ship burials, as the Tune, Gokstad, and Oseberg ships, which were excavated in 1868, 1880 and 1904, respectively, were not carried out to modern standards.

“It’s important because it’s more than 100 years ago that we excavated a ship burial like this,” he said. “With the technology we have now and the equipment we have today, this gives us a tremendous opportunity to understand why these ship burials took place.”

“These were very early excavations so there’s a lot of information that we really don’t have because of the way it was done at the time.”

He said that as well as the keel of the boat, there were also signs of burial goods and other matter inside the ship.

“We know that when we excavate we will be able to investigate some of those objects,” he said.

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Medieval church walls found in Ethiopia

Monday, April 27th, 2020

The remains of a medieval church have been discovered at the archaeological site of Debre Gergis in the Tigray Region of northern Ethiopia.  Archaeologists from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw (PCMA UW) had begun to excavate the site last month when the fieldwork season was cut short after just eight days. Before the team was pulled out to beat coronavirus travel restrictions, the team deployed drones to record their discoveries for later analysis.

Visible above ground at Debre Gergis are ruins from the Aksumite Empire (100 A.D. – 940 A.D.), several sandstone pillars and a monumental obelisk 20 feet high. The obelisk, a uniquely Axumite architectural feature, is likely a grave marker, part of a vast ancient cemetery at the site.

The ruins of Debre Gergis have been visually surveyed and photographed, but the site had not been excavated. The goal of this first excavation of Debre Gergis was to thoroughly map and document the surface remains and to look for other potential spots of interest.  Locals report that there was a Christian church from the late Aksumite period, but there are no records of its precise age, design or layout. The team hoped to find remains from the church.

In two archaeological excavations, researchers noticed damaged walls probably constituting the outer part of a medieval church. One of them still contained wooden piles. In addition, a fragment of the apse was discovered, in the form of stone floor blocks with a semicircular layout.

The researchers also noticed a block with engraved inscription in Ethiopic. A preliminary analysis of its age based on the fragments of ceramic vessels discovered next to the block suggests that it dates back to 700-1100 AD. Works on translation are underway.

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Skeletons found buried in foundations of 11th c. castle

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020

The excavation of Břeclav Castle in the Czech Republic, has unearthed the skeletal remains of three people in the medieval foundations, possibly the victims of ritual sacrifice. The individuals were found under the 11th century walls discovered last year. They had been placed next to each other over the first layer of stone of the rampart and their positions suggest they may have been tied together. An iron object a foot and a half long was placed over them. It is tapered on one end, but the object is too corroded to be identified.

“These unfortunates seem to have fallen victim to some drastic pagan practice, or murder”, explains [archaeologist Miroslav] Dejmal. “It is hard to imagine that all three died at the same time by accident. And most importantly, placing them on the first layer of stones of the newly rampart and the position of the bodies, suggests they were in fact sacrificed.” […]

“Next week, together with anthropologists, we will try to learn more about the dead. We’ll see if we can find out if they were related or whether they were ‘locals’. It has been suggested that they might be slaves, possibly prisoners of war, who were used to build the walls and then perhaps sacrificed or executed. Even though the rampart builders had been converted to Christianity by around 1050, many, often harsh, pagan practices still survived.”

I would hesitate to chalk this up to the work of crypto-pagans. The builder of the castle, Bretislav I, Duke of Bohemia, was Christian, as was his father, his father before him and so on all the way back to the first Duke of Bohemia, Bořivoj I, in the 9th century. The Přemyslid dynasty includes two saints, Ludmila and her grandson Wenceslaus of Christmas carol fame. Christianity was well-established by the early 11th century, two denominations of it (Slavic Orthodox and Roman Catholic), no less. If the trio was indeed sacrificed for the good of the castle, you can’t assume Bretislav and/or his subordinates didn’t have knowledge of it or even a hand in it. It certainly couldn’t have been done without people on site being aware of it.

Foundation sacrifice stories abound in the folklore of many cultures around the world. Numerous countries in Eastern Europe — Serbia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary — have folk songs dedicated to a legendary foundation sacrifice. The Walled-Up Wife and its many variants tell of masons building a castle whose work is magically dismantled every night. They learn that they must wall up the first woman who visits the next day in order to break the nefarious spell and finish construction. The architect’s wife turns out to be the unfortunate victim.

Folklorists beginning with Jacob Grimm, the elder of the fairy tale-collecting brothers, have hypothesized that the foundation sacrifice stories originate with pre-Christian rituals dedicated to appeasing deities/spirits of the landscape angered by people building things on their turfs. Want to build a bridge over a river? Better give the river god some recompense for all the future drowning victims he’s going to miss out on.

The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845) recounts that no less Christian a figure than St. Columba, the Irish missionary who evangelized the Scots in the 6th century, buried his best friend in the foundations of the monastery of Iona.

When Columba first attempted to build on lona, the walls, it is said, by the operation of some evil spirit, fell down as fast as they were erected. Columba received supernatural information that they would never stand unless a human victim was buried alive. According to one account, the lot fell on Oran, the companion of the saint, as the victim that was demanded for the success of the undertaking. Others pretend that Oran voluntarily devoted himself, and was interred accordingly. At the end of three days Columba had the curiosity to take a farewell look at his old friend, and caused the earth to be removed. Oran raised his swimming eyes, and said, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported.” The saint  was so shocked at this impiety that he instantly ordered the earth to be flung in again, uttering the words, “Uir! Uir!  air beal Orain ma’n labhair e tuile comh’radh,” that is, “Earth! Earth! on the mouth of Oran that he may blab no more.”

The author shares the juicy story but doubts its veracity, accusing the “druids” of having made it all up to slander Columba and Christianity “especially as the savage rite imputed to him was only practised by the heathens.” 

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Absolute unit of an Ottoman shipwreck found

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

Maritime archaeologists have discovered a dozen shipwrecks off the coast of Lebanon in the Levantine Basin. Ranging in date from the 3rd century B.C. to the 19th century, there are wrecks from the Hellenistic, Roman, early Islamic and Ottoman eras. A team from the Enigma Shipwrecks Project (ESP) found the wrecks up to a mile deep on the sea floor. They scanned and documented the area with remote operated vehicles, capturing high-resolution images and HD video. The field exploration of the wrecks ended in late 2015, but as researchers continue to work on the data and artifacts, the find has been kept under wraps until now.

One ship dominated the others in size and in richness of cargo. It was an Ottoman merchant vessel that sank around 1630 during a voyage between Egypt and Istanbul. At 140 feet long displacing 1,000 tons, it was so huge that two regular ships could have fit comfortably on its deck and its hold contained hundreds of artifacts of astonishing diversity representing 14 different cultures, among them western North Africa, China, India, Italy, Spain and Belgium. Artifacts include the earliest Chinese porcelain ever found on a Mediterranean wreck, Italian ceramics and Indian peppercorns.

The objects illustrate the global reach of trade in the early 17th century and how consumer demand in one country drove production of goods across the globe.

The Chinese porcelain includes 360 decorated cups, dishes and a bottle made in the kilns of Jingdezhen during the reign of Chongzhen, the last Ming emperor that were designed for sipping tea, but the Ottomans adapted them for the craze then spreading across the East – coffee drinking. Hidden deep in the hold were the earliest Ottoman clay tobacco pipes found on land or sea. They were probably illicit because there were severe prohibitions then against tobacco smoking.

[ESP archaeologist Sean] Kingsley said: “Through tobacco smoking and coffee drinking in Ottoman cafes, the idea of recreation and polite society – hallmarks of modern culture – came to life. Europe may think it invented notions of civility, but the wrecked coffee cups and pots prove the ‘barbarian Orient’ was a trailblazer rather than a backwater. The first London coffeehouse only opened its doors in 1652, a century after the Levant.”

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Church #16 with warrior saints mural found in Bulgaria

Friday, April 17th, 2020

Archaeologists excavating the medieval Bulgarian site of Cherven have unearthed masonry walls from a church with surviving 14th century murals. The church is the 16th discovered at the archaeological site of Cherven and was previously unknown.

“The full-fledged exposure of the church building led to the discovery of a preserved layer of murals on the temple’s walls,” the [Ruse Regional Museum of History] says.

“The preserved fresco fragments are parts of a painted drapery as well as a partly preserved scene with figures of warrior saints,” it adds. […]

The area of the surviving murals is about 12 square meters on the ruins of the walls of the church, which is dated, more specifically, to the first decades of the 14th century.

The late medieval church is described as one of the temples that are representative of the life of the medieval fortress of Cherven.

The medieval fortress of Cherven perched on a high cliff in northeastern Bulgaria was one of the most important military, religious and economic centers in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396). An urban settlement grew around the stronghold, first contained within defensive walls, then bursting their confines with a large outer that expanded to the nearby hills. It was made the seat of the Bulgarian Orthodox Bishopric of Cherven in the 1235.

Located at the junction of two major trade roads, by the second half of the 14th century, Cherven’s its military and religious importance grew to include commerce and trade, iron mining, metallurgy and the arts. Its prosperity and religious prominence are attested to by the 80 inscriptions dedicated to church donors that have been found there. Only 60 such inscriptions have been found in Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire where the royal family and the patriarch had their palaces.

Cherven was conquered by the Ottomans in 1388 and soon lost prominence. The old city was abandoned and the few residents that stuck around built the modern-day village of Cherven down the river gorge from the clifftop. The remains of the medieval city were first excavated in the early 20th century. Systematic excavations began in 1961 and are ongoing. Today the site of medieval Cherven is a national archaeological preserve inside the Rusenski Lom Natural Park.

Some of the frescoes have been removed to a restoration workshop so they can be conserved and stabilized on a new surface. The mounted frescoes would then be put on display at the museum. The frescoes and walls remaining in situ have been covered for their protection.

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Landslide reveals medieval cave shrine

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

A landslide has revealed the remains of a medieval cave shrine near Guildford, Surrey. The shallow sandstone cave was discovered by rail workers repairing train lines after the landslide sheered off the embankment above last December.

NetworkRail called in archaeological contractors to investigate the find. The team had to abseil to reach the cave and inspect its decoration. The central decoration is a deeply carved niche in the shape of a pointed Gothic arch dotted with cup cut-outs. Next to it is a cross atop Calvary. They found carvings of another seven or eight Gothic niches on the wall (they’re heavily worn and can be hard to distinguish) and initials and other markings on the ceiling of the cave. The remains of what are believed to be two fire-pits were discovered on the floor and a black substance on the ceiling may be soot, either from the fires or from lamps.

A spokesperson from Archaeology South East, said: “The cave contained what appear to be shrines or decorative niches, together with carved initials and other markings. The old name for St Catherine’s Hill is Drakehull ‘The Hill of the Dragon’, so this has obviously been a site of ritual significance long before the construction of the church on the top of the hill in the late 13th century.

“Work is underway to analyse soot and charcoal found inside the cave, which will hopefully tell us more about how and when it was used.”

What is left of the cavern today is relatively small, with ceiling heights ranging from one to just over two feet, but it was much larger in its medieval heyday. Construction of the railway cut through the hill in the 1840s, leaving only this section of the cave intact.

Mark Killick, Network Rail Wessex route director, said: “This is an unexpected and fascinating discovery that helps to visualise and understand the rich history of the area.

“A full and detailed record of the cave has been made and every effort will be made to preserve elements where possible during the regrading of the delicate and vulnerable sandstone cutting.”

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