Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Two 16th c. silver vessels found in pre-Inca fortress

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

High in the Andean cloud forest of Peru’s remote Amazonas Region, archaeologists excavating the site of Purunllacta de Soloco have unearthed two silver vessels that lend unique insight into the history of the area in the transitional period after the Spanish conquest. Built by the pre-Inca Chachapoya culture, Purunllacta de Soloco is a thousand-year-old fortress with forbidding stone walls perched on a mountain top covered in jungle vegetation. The site, while known, was excavated by archaeologists for the first time in 2014, and no wonder, since it takes three hours of hard climbing from the town of Chachapoyas to reach the summit.

The cups are ceremonial vessels known as aquillas, used by the Inca in almost every ritual and found all over their former empire. They are 4.4 inches high and 4.6 inches in diameter at the widest point around the rim. They each weigh 152 grams (5.36 ounces) and are made from sheets of relatively thick (.8 – 1mm) silver. They taper to a wide mouth with a straight lip around the rim. They are in excellent condition, with no visible signs of corrosion or any corrosive by-products like carbonates, chlorides and copper oxides. The lack of silver chlorides indicates the percentage of pure silver is very high.

The slightly concave walls are decorated under the rim with a high relief of figures divided into four scenes separated by two parallel vertical lines. Horizontal parallel lines frame the relief top and bottom. Each of the scenes features two characters, male and female, wearing clothes with geometric patterns and hats or headdresses. The characters hold hands, facing outwards. Some of them carry a bag or an axe. There are also points and notches in low relief in the background. The hats are typical of Spanish colonial style and the geometric garments are the traditional dress of the Inca empire.

The decoration was made using a mixture of three techniques: repoussé, embossing and incision. The repoussé was done by wrapping a single sheet of metal around a wooden mold on which the decoration had been carved and hammering the sheet against the molds until the relief transferred. Embossing was done by drawing concave shapes into both sides of the metal with a blunt tool. The incised designs were carved into the outside of the metal sheet. The quality of the relief work is exceptional.

Because of the Spanish influence, archaeologists believe these vessels were carved during the first Spanish occupation of the area between 1536 and 1580. This is the first time silver aquillas have been found at Chachapoya sites. They were not known to have worked in precious of semi-precious metals so it’s probable the vessels were of Inca manufacture rather than made locally. Wood artifacts carved with Inca-style figures dating to 30 years after the Spanish conquest have been recovered from Chachapoya sites before, however, and it’s not entirely impossible that the aquillas were made by Chachapoya artisans influenced by the Inca and Spanish, but the strength of the relief indicates very expert silversmithing that was not native to Chachapoya culture.

The aquillas were found nested into each other inside a hole and were probably ceremonial offerings. A stone building was then constructed above the vessels. The fact that they were made and deposited up to 50 years after the Spanish arrived means that the Andean elites were still practicing traditional rituals for decades after the conquest. It also confirms that both the Inca Empire, which conquered the Chachapoya in the 15th century (a fitful conquest, since the Chachapoya resisted their invaders so consistently for so long that they actually sided with the Spanish when they first arrived), and the Spanish in the 16th century reached the remote, strongly fortified settlement of Purunllacta de Soloco, something archaeologists have believed but found no archaeological evidence of until now.

After they were excavated, the aquillas were sent to the Brüning National Archaeological Museum in Lambayeque for cleaning and conservation. Some kind of organic residue has been found inside the vessels. Researchers will test the substance to identify its makeup. Since the vessels were likely used for ritual purposes before their deliberate burial, whatever they held will tell us more about the ceremony. (The Incas used chicha, fermented corn beer, in their rituals.)

Conservation took three months and is now complete. The aquillas have been officially transferred to the Regional Directorate of Culture of Amazonas who will keep them until they go on display in the new Regional Museum of Chachapoyas which isn’t open yet. The space will need to be modified to display the vessels in ideal climactic conditions and keep them secure.


Bronze Age gold sun disc on display for first time

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

A gold sun disc discovered in an early Bronze Age grave in 1947 went on public display Friday for the first time in its history. The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes celebrated the Summer Solstice by adding the gold circle about the size of a penny that represents the sun to its permanent exhibition of prehistoric artifacts.

The sun disc is one of only six of its kind ever found in Britain. It was unearthed from a burial mound at Monkton Farleigh in 1947 along with some flint arrowheads, a pottery beaker and pieces of the skeletal remains of an adult male. The grave was discovered by dowser and author Guy Underwood who believed dowsing could be used to locate archaeologically significant sites and whose studies of the alignment of prehistoric British sites evolved into theories about earth energy patterns that would be published after his death in The Pattern of the Past.

Monkton Farleigh is 24 miles or so northwest of Stonehenge and the sun disc dates to around 2,400 B.C. which is about the time when the great sarsen stones were arranged in a circle at Stonehenge (between 2,600-2,400 B.C.). Both the stone circle and the sun disc are connected to ancient solar worship.

The sun-disk is a thin embossed sheet of gold with a cross at the centre, surrounded by a circle. Between the lines of both the cross and the circle are fine dots which glint in sunlight. The disc is pierced by two holes that may have been used to sew the disc to a piece of clothing or a head-dress, and may have been used in pairs.

After its discovery in the 1940s, the sun disc was kept by the property owner (that sort of thing wouldn’t fly today because ancient precious metals would be considered treasure and by law property of the Crown) Dr. Denis Whitehead. After almost 70 years squirreled away — it wasn’t shown to an actual archaeologist until 2013 — the sun disc was donated to the Wiltshire Museum in memory of Dr. Whitehead.

The Wiltshire Museum has a new Prehistoric Wiltshire gallery that includes the gold artifacts unearthed in 1808 from a grave at Bush Barrow one kilometer (.6 miles) south of Stonehenge, most famously a lozenge-shaped sheet of gold about seven inches long incised with geometric decorations that was found on the breastbone of the deceased. The Bush Barrow artifacts — a gold belt buckle, a second much smaller gold lozenge, three copper daggers, a bronze ax, a bronze spearhead, a stone mace with bronze fittings, the remains of a shield, a bone scepter — were on display before at the Wiltshire Museum in the 19th century but security concerns spurred the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society to lend the Bush Barrow gold to the British Museum. After a disastrous restoration in 1985 that irreversibly altered the large lozenge’s shape, the society took the pieces back. Now they and the Monkton Farleigh sun disc are on display together in the new gallery, an exceptional collection of Bronze Age gold.


Lavau noble buried wearing 1.28-pound gold torc

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

The excavation of the princely tomb from the early 5th c. B.C. unearthed at Lavau in France’s Champagne region was completed a few days ago. Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have now published more about what they found in the richly appointed grave.

The deceased is laid out in the center of the tomb, head oriented south, with his two-wheeled chariot. The prince wears a torc in solid gold weighing 580 grams (1.28 pounds), significantly heavier that 480-gram 24-carat gold torc in the Lady of Vix grave discovered in 1953 about 40 miles south of Lavau. This rigid neck ring is richly decorated in a double motif of winged monster, extended by pear-shaped stamps. On his wrists are gold bracelets while his bicep is encircled by an lignite armlet. Near the nape of his neck are several finely worked amber beads, the remains of a necklace or hair ornament. There are also very rare surviving organic remains from his clothing. Archaeologists found two iron and coral hooks attached to fragments of leather and a row of rivets — remnants of the collar from his top — bodkins and bronze hooks from his shoes.

The largest and most elaborately decorated find — the bronze cauldron three feet in diameter adorned with four circular handles attached to the head of Greek river-god Achelous and eight lion heads around the rim — is part of a wine set that includes the Attic black figure ceramic oinochoe, perforated spoon and smaller bronze vessels found inside the cauldron. It’s Greco-Latin in manufacture and was probably the centerpiece of an aristocratic Celtic banquet.

The Lavau burial has several elements in common with the Lady of Vix, including the huge and hugely fancy banquetware. It dates to around 500 B.C., on the cusp between the end of the Hallstatt and the beginning of the La Tène period. She too was buried with exceptionally rich grave goods of Greek and Celtic extraction: a bronze volute krater of immense size — 5’4″ high, 290 gallon capacity, 450 lbs total weight including base and lid — which is the largest metal vessel from Classical antiquity known to survive, an oinochoe wine jug (although the Vix one was bronze while Lavau’s is black figure ceramic with a gilded rim and foot) a two-wheeled chariot, a heavy gold torc and jewelry with amber beads.

Another slightly later tomb (mid-4th century B.C.), that of the Princess of Reinheim, unearthed near Saargemünd, Germany, just across the border with Lorraine, also has similar grave goods: a gold torc around her neck and gold bangles on each wrist, amber beads by her side (once held in a long-decayed wooden jewelry box, perhaps), and an expensive beverage set composed of a large bronze flagon (1’8″ high), other bronze basins and the remains of gold fixtures thought to be from drinking horns.

The Lady of Vix’s remains were almost completely decomposed. She was deemed a lady because even with all the priceless treasures interred with her none of them are weapons. The same conclusion was drawn from the lack of a weapon in the grave goods of the Princess of Reinheim whose skeletal remains were annihilated by the acidic soil, but modern archaeology is reluctant to draw firm conclusions on sex based on the nature of the grave goods. A knife still in its sheath was found in the Lavau grave, but Celtic women were known to have fought, so we can’t assume the prince is not a princess. The bones that have survived are in very poor condition so it’s not possible to determine the deceased’s sex just by observation. Unlike with the Lady of Vix who was unearthed in 1953, modern archaeology may be able to make the determination by other means (DNA testing, stable isotope analysis).


Merovingian wine jug found in Denmark cemetery

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the oldest cemetery in Ribe, southwestern Denmark, have discovered an intact Merovingian-era pitcher. It is the only vessel of its type ever found in Denmark and because Ribe, founded in the early 8th century, is not only the oldest extant city in Denmark, but the oldest in Scandinavia, this teapot-sized jug is of disproportionately large historical significance.

The pitcher was found underneath a large upside-down vessel which was cracked and broken. It may have been deliberately placed over the little treasure to protect it, but if it wasn’t, it performed that function anyway, keeping the jug from being damaged or broken over the centuries. When the archaeologists removed the pieces on top of it, they immediately saw they had something special. Danish pottery from the early Middle Ages is black, brown or red. The bright color of this ceramic marked it as imported. When they excavated it fully they were amazed to find a complete piece of such high quality and great age.

Unsure of what exactly they had unearthed, the team consulted with experts who identified it from its features — the clover leaf spout, the shape of the handle — as a trefoil pitcher made during the Merovingian dynasty (circa 450-750 A.D.) in France or Belgium. Unlike domestic ceramics, this pitcher was made on a turntable and fired in a kiln.

Merovingian vessels have also been found in the late 8th century trading settlement of Hedeby, also on the Jutland peninsula but today just across the border in Germany about 80 miles south of Ribe. They are very rare. Out of 2,000 graves excavated in Hedeby, only three of them included Frankish pitchers, none of them of the trefoil type.

“It is a unique find,” said Morten Søvsø, the head of archaeology at Sydvestjyske Museum.

“The pitcher is an example of the finest pottery produced in northern Europe at the time, and it has never been seen before in Denmark. The vessel reveals information about the vast trading network that put Ribe on the map during the Viking era.” [...]

“The jug is a masterpiece from the French or Belgian workshops, and its elegant form is a direct legacy from ancient Roman potters. No pottery at home could technically produce such a thing at the time,” said Søvsø.

Archaeologists couldn’t narrow down the precise date it was made or when it was buried. It was certainly interred more than 1,000 years ago and most likely when Ribe was still new. Archaeologists have long thought that Ribe grew gradually into a city of import, but the discovery of the pitcher suggests there were early connections with the Franks. It could have been traded or the person with whom it was buried was of Frankish origin. According to lead archaeologist Søren Sindbæk, the grave goods found in its cemetery are useful objects that had meaning to the people buried with them, not exotic objects like this pitcher would have been to someone native to the area. If he was a Frank, he must have been well-enough known in Ribe society to garner a formal burial in the cemetery.

The archaeological team is hoping to be able to answer some of the questions about the origin of the pitcher and the person whose grave it adorned by studying the bones found in the grave. Stable isotope analysis of the teeth and bones can narrow down where someone lived in early childhood.

The burial ground has a wide variety of graves from different periods: pre-Christian cremation burials, urn burials, boat burials, Christian inhumations, animal burials. Last year the team unearthed the unique grave of a fully outfitted warhorse and rider from the earliest days of the city. Elite mounted warrior burials have been found before, but they date to the 10th century, the end of the Viking period, while this grave is from the early 8th century almost a hundred years before the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne (793 A.D.).


Museum acquires St. Albans gold coin hoard

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

The hoard of 159 Roman gold coins discovered near St. Albans, Hertfordshire, in the fall of 2012 has been acquired by St. Albans’ Verulamium Museum. The first 55 coins were unearthed on September 23rd by first-time metal detectorist Wesley Carrington who found the first coin seven inches under the surface just 15 minutes after beginning his search. After consulting with the owner of the shop where he had bought his metal detector, Carrington reported the discovery to his local Finds Liaison Officer. On October 1st, Carrington returned to the site with a team of archaeologists from St. Albans City and District Museums Service and they found another 104 coins.

The coins are all 22-carat gold solidi from the late 4th and early 5th century struck in Milan, Ravenna, Rome, Trier during the reigns of Emperors Gratian, Valentinian II, Theodosius I, Arcadius and Honorius. Although they were found all over the field, archaeologists believe that’s the result of a couple of centuries of farming scattering the cache, that the solidi were originally buried together in a now-lost container. Their rough treatment by one or more ploughs has left surprisingly few marks on the coins. They are in pristine condition.

This is the second largest group of Roman gold solidi found in Britain. The largest was the 565 solidi found in the massive Hoxne Hoard that also contained 14,272 silver coins as well as jewelry and silver dinnerware. The St. Albans Hoard is the largest in Britain composed entirely of gold solidi.

Gold solidi were enormously valuable coins. By law they could not be spent on retail market goods, but only for large purchases and deals like property sales and entire ship’s of goods. Whoever owned these coins was very wealthy, a merchant or a banker. The last coins to arrive in Roman Britain from the continent came in 408 A.D., two years before the army withdrew leaving the province to deal with the descending chaos on its own. One of the ways they coped was to bury their valuables to keep them safe from pillagers until they could reclaim them, which is likely what happened here. It could also have been buried as a sacrifice to the gods, but it’s on the generous side for a votive, to put it mildly.

After the discovery of the hoard, the coins were examined by an independent panel of experts at the British Museum. Based on the panel’s report, a coroner’s inquest in July of 2013 determined that the hoard was treasure according to the UK’s Treasure Act. The British Museum panel then assessed fair market value of the coins at £98,500 ($150,000) and the relevant museum closest to the discovery spot, in this case the Verulamium Museum, was given the opportunity to acquire it for that amount.

They raised it and then some. Thanks to a sizeable Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £105,000, £24,000 from an overseas benefactor who prefers to remain anonymous, £11,000 from the St. Albans Museums and Galleries Trust and £6,000 from the Council, the museum was able to secure the hoard and some funding to create a display worthy of their rarity and beauty. The coins will go on display at the museum in September.


2,000-year-old round pearl found in shell midden

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

In 2011, archaeologists from the University of Wollongong (UOW) and the University of New England (UNE) excavating the Brremangurey Rockshelter on the north Kimberley coast of Western Australia discovered a pearl in the site’s shell midden. The rockshelter was used by Indigenous peoples for more than 12,000 years, as attested by rock art and shell middens. The pearl was found in a layer of marine shell that radiocarbon dating found was 1800-1906 years old. It is the only pearl known to have been recovered from a prehistoric archaeological site in Australia.

The unique find caused much excitement in the community because of the area’s rich pearling history. The harvest of natural South Sea pearls from the large oyster species Pinctada maxima was a major industry along the Kimberley Coast in the 19th century, and while those beds collapsed more than a century ago, since the introduction of the Japanese techniques of pearl culturing in the 1950s, the coastline has been a center of pearl production.

The marine pearl is small but comely at 5.9mm in maximum diameter and weighing a quarter of a gram. Its petite size, warm golden-rose color and almost spherical shape are characteristic features of a cultured Akoya pearl rather than a natural South Sea pearl. Local pearl experts thought it more likely to be an intrusive cultured pearl that somehow made its way into an ancient midden pile instead of the one and only prehistoric pearl ever found in Australia. Indeed, tests on the midden pile found that some of the deposits had experienced significant time-averaging and downward movement of shell layers.

In order to determine the pearl’s true nature, the archaeological team had to eschew the usual analytic methodologies like radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis because they result in the destruction of samples. Instead they teamed up with Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm to do a comparative analysis of a cultured Akoya pearls with the Brremangurey pearl using non-invasive X-ray computed microtomography to capture the pearls’ inner architecture. They scanned three Cygnet Bay pearls — two seeded in 2010 and harvested in 2012, one keshi pearl that grew without a bead — and the Brremangurey pearl.

The scans left no doubt whatsoever that the Brremangurey pearl is natural. The CT scans of the seeded pearls showed a very clear homogeneous spherical nucleus (the bead made of crushed and compacted Mississippi mussel shells) wrapped in two relatively thick layers of nacre, one per year of growth. The Brremangurey pearl has a much smaller nucleus and 14 thin layers of nacre. There is no pearl farmer in his right mind willing to wait 14 years for a six millimeter pearl to grow, nor has this ever been a practice in the history of pearl culturing.

The nucleus is also very different. Like the cultured bead, it is almost spherical, but that’s just a fluke. A separate scan of the nucleus itself underscored how different its structure is to the beads of the cultured pearls. Instead of being a solid homogeneous material, it has a tiny hollow center — a cyst formed as a result of damage to the edge of the mantle — surrounded by rays of calcium carbonate terminating in an exterior surface the published paper describes evocatively as “pustolose.” That surface was then wrapped in layer of nacre. That’s how natural pearls form.

“This analysis confirmed that it was a natural pearl that had grown inside a small pearl oyster for over a decade before the animal was harvested for eating,” [PhD student and co-author of the study Brent Koppel] said.

Although there are no records to suggest that pearls are of cultural significance to Indigenous peoples of the Kimberley, the pearl oyster shells which produce them are very important. The shells formed the basis of a historically-recorded trade which stretched from the Kimberley to the Central Desert. It is likely that the pearl at Brremangurey is a by-product of pearl shell collection. The great numbers of pearl shells within certain layers of the shell midden at Brremangurey suggests that the shells’ cultural value extends well back into prehistory.

You can read the paper about the pearl study here (pdf). The Brremangurey pearl will go on public display along with some of those highly significant prehistoric pearl shells in the Lustre: Pearling & Australia exhibition which opens on June 20th at the Western Australian Maritime Museum.


Scythian gold vessels found with opium, cannabis residue

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Gold vessels found in a Scythian burial mound in the Caucasus Mountains near Strovopol, southwestern Russia, have traces of cannabis and opium inside them. The artifacts were discovered in the summer of 2013 when kurgan Sengileevskoe-2 was being excavated in advance of power-line construction. Archaeologist Andrei Belinski didn’t expect to find anything of note — the kurgan had already been looted — but after a few weeks of digging, the team encountered a thick layer of clay. Underneath the clay was a rectangular chamber lined with flat stones that held a treasure trove of 2,400-year-old solid gold artifacts.

The trove consists of two gold bucket-shaped vessels turned upside down on top of three gold cups with holes in their bases, a heavy gold ring, two neck rings and a bracelet. Their total weight is 3.2 kilos (seven pounds). Seeing a black residue at the bottom of the vessels, Belinksi had forensic criminologists in Strovopol analyze the substance. It tested positive for opium and cannabis, providing archaeological evidence for a practice mentioned by ancient Greek historian of dubious accuracy Herodotus.

Herodotus gives an account in Book IV of his History of Scythians using hemp in a purification ritual after the funeral of a king.

After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed. [...]

The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.

The elaborate decoration on one of the upside down gold vessels may also tie into one of Herodotus’ anecdotes. At the beginning of Book IV, he describes the Schythian warriors returning home after 28 years of war in Persia to find that their wives gave up on them years ago and had children with their slaves instead. The sons, knowing they would not be accepted by the cuckolded husbands, attempted to block their return. They were successful at first, winning battle after battle, but soon they were overcome by the mere symbols of their slave heritage.

“What are we doing, Scythians? We are fighting our slaves, diminishing our own number when we fall, and the number of those that belong to us when they fall by our hands. Take my advice — lay spear and bow aside, and let each man fetch his horsewhip, and go boldly up to them. So long as they see us with arms in our hands, they imagine themselves our equals in birth and bravery; but let them behold us with no other weapon but the whip, and they will feel that they are our slaves, and flee before us.”

The Scythians followed this counsel, and the slaves were so astounded, that they forgot to fight, and immediately ran away.

This conflict became known as the Bastard Wars. One of the vessels has a scene of an older bearded man slaying a young warrior, a possible reference to the Bastard Wars. Andrei Belinski thinks the imagery isn’t referring to a specific battle, but is more likely to be a metaphoric representation of chaos in the wake of a king’s death, an appropriate subject for royal grave goods. It would be more in keeping with the decoration of another vessel: a mythological scene of griffons tearing apart a horse and stag in what may be the Scythian underworld.

The high quality of the decoration on the solid gold pieces suggests they were made for royalty. The designs are exquisitely detailed.

To archaeologists, the information contained in the images on the gold is exciting. From the warriors’ shoes to their haircuts, the depictions are amazingly lifelike. “I’ve never seen such a detailed representation of the clothing and weaponry of the Scythians,” says Belinski. “It’s so detailed you can see how the clothing was sewn.”

The excavation of the kurgan was completed last fall, but archaeologists are hoping to return to excavate the network of trenches and earthen rings circling the mound which may indicate a ceremonial complex built around the central mound.


Staffordshire Hoard helmet band, pommel pieced together

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Anyone who has ever done a large jigsaw puzzle knows how essential it is to put like with like. When your puzzle is 4,000 pieces of Anglo-Saxon gold, silver and gem-festooned objects, sorting out which are part of the same artifact is essential. Thus one of the most important and complicated labours in the first phase of conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard was the grouping together of fragments according to their physical and stylistic characteristics. From the grouping exercise, researchers identified more than 1,500 fragments of silver gilt foil they believe were part of an extremely rare Anglo-Saxon helmet.

Only four other examples of Anglo-Saxon helmets have been found, including one unearthed in the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939, so it’s imperative that the puzzle be pieced together. It’s a painstaking job, figuring out how 1,500 sheets and strips of foil, many of them no larger than 10mm (.4 inches) across, fit together. So far they’ve been able to piece together a zoomorphic frieze and many of the fragments making up the helmet band that runs around the circumference of the object. The helmet band designs are die-stamped warriors armed and kneeling.

Here’s a glimpse of the tiny pieces of a zoomorphic frieze from the helmet conservators are negotiating:

The Sutton Hoo helmet is silver. The Staffordshire Hoard is gilded. That suggests that whoever donned this elaborate and expensive helmet was of extremely high status, perhaps a king or prince.

Another object conservators have pieced back together from fragments is a pommel. There are more than 70 pommels in the Staffordshire Hoard, but this one is unique. Reassembled from 26 fragments, the gold, gold filigree, garnet, niello and inlaid glass pommel has a rounded piece on the shoulder called a “sword-ring.” Although only one of the pommel’s sword-rings has been found in the hoard, the construction indicates there were two originally, one on each side. This is the first pommel ever discovered to have two sword-rings, making it an entirely new type. It is also lavishly decorated in a combination of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish motifs. It may even have a combination of early Christian and traditional polytheistic decorative themes — the garnet and glass inlaid disk could be a stylized Christiana cross, while three serpents on the back of the pommel are pagan.

Chris Fern, project archaeologist, said “The Staffordshire Hoard links us with an age of warrior splendour. The gold and silver war-gear was probably made in workshops controlled by some of England’s earliest kings, to reward warriors that served those rulers, when multiple kingdoms fought for supremacy. The skill of the craftsmen is equally thrilling to behold, with many of the finds decorated with pagan and Christian art, designed to give spiritual protection in battle.”

“The newly recognised pommel is truly exciting. It combines multiple different styles of ornament, much in the same way as the earliest 7th century illuminated manuscripts do, like the Book of Durrow. It suggests the coming together of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish high cultures.”

The second stage of conservation and research has been funded to the tune of £400,000 by Historic England, but they need to raise another £120,000 to complete the project. This phase will entail the conservation and physical joining of the fragments that have been matched to each other, a comprehensive study of the exquisite cloisonné cellwork seen on so many pieces from the hoard (see the gold and garnet Bible bindings in the video below for an example), a microscopic analysis of materials that are as of yet unidentified, contextual research of the practice of hoarding and the creation of an online database of the complete hoard by 2017.

If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can make an online payment here. You can also download this donation form (pdf) to contribute by check.

If you’re in the Birmingham area today, hustle on over to the museum to meet the Staffordshire Hoard conservation team. You’ll get to ask them questions and you’ll even have the chance to clean a piece of the hoard and examine it under a microscope. The event is free and open between 11:00AM – 1:00PM and 2:00 – 4:00PM.


Huge silver ingot found on alleged Captain Kidd shipwreck

Friday, May 8th, 2015

A massive silver ingot weighing 110 pounds has been found in the Indian Ocean waters near the island Sainte Marie off the east coast of Madagascar. It was discovered by explorer Barry Clifford on a shipwreck that he alleges is what’s left of Captain Kidd’s vessel the Adventure Galley. The silver bar is believed to be the largest ever found on a shipwreck.

The ingot has extensive markings on both sides which Clifford’s team thinks point to its originating in 17th century Bolivia. The History channel (they dropped “channel” from the official name but I just can’t bring myself to call it HISTORY the way they do), which has been filming Clifford’s exploration of the wreck for an upcoming multi-part series, has an image of the underside of the ingot with the marks labelled but not explained. I guess they’re saving the full explanation for the show. The ingot was recovered from the wreck and handed over to Madagascar’s President Hery Rajaonarimampianina in a public ceremony.

Clifford found this wreck 15 years ago and has been returning to it regularly ever since. The problem is there is no concrete evidence that it’s the Adventure Galley. They found an oarlock that’s the proper size for a galley like the Adventure and copious fragments of Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain that stylistically dates to the late 17th century and that’s it. They had hoped to find personal belongings sailors might have left behind that would help identify the wreck, but that came to nought.

Île Sainte-Marie became known as the Island of the Pirates because a number of pirates used it as a base due to its convenient location next to the lucrative shipping lanes of the East India trade, its many protected bays and inlets and its rich endowment of fruit. Captain Kidd is known to have harbored there in the Spring and Summer of 1698, but the ship could have belonged to any of the many pirates and privateers who hung out on Sainte-Marie around that time.

That hasn’t stopped Clifford from making claims that are, to put it generously, hyperbolic.

“Captain’s Kidd’s treasure is the stuff of legends. People have been looking for it for 300 years. To literally have it hit me on the head – I thought what the heck just happened to me. I really didn’t expect this,” Mr Clifford said.

“There’s more down there. I know the whole bottom of the cavity where I found the silver bar is filled with metal. It’s too murky down there to see what metal, but my metal detector tells me there is metal on all sides.”

This has generated many a breathless “Captain Kidd treasure found!” headlines, but it’s really a shameless equivocation because even if Clifford truly did find the remains of the Adventure Galley — an if even bigger than a 150-pound silver bar — the legendary treasure of Captain Kidd was not on it. The £100,000 treasure he claimed in his famous last letter to have hidden was in a secret location in the Caribbean, and indeed, what kind of pirate would leave any part of his vast treasure on a derelict vessel while he took his best ship across the world to the Caribbean Sea?

According to Kidd’s testimony at his trial and a statement from pirate Theophilus Turner, the Adventure Galley, which by then was taking on so much water as to render it barely seaworthy, was burned to the waterline and then sunk. Before it was destroyed, Kidd had anything of value, from the cannon to the very hinges, loaded onto the Quedagh Merchant, a 400-ton merchant vessel he had captured in January of 1698 and renamed the Adventure Prize. Kidd testified that the Adventure Prize was loaded with 10 tons of scrap iron and 14 or 15 spare anchors before leaving Madagascar for the Caribbean. A giant silver ingot is not likely to have been overlooked.

The archaeological record supports his testimony, as the wreck of the Quedagh Merchant, discovered in 2007 in the Caribbean Sea near Catalina Island off the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, was found with 26 cannons, most of them stacked in the hold muzzle to cascabel as cargo rather than armed on deck. Three large anchor crowns were found underneath one of the cannon piles and there were magnetic anomalies detected underneath the anchors that are consistent with the tons of scrap iron Kidd mentioned.

Even Clifford himself noted in 2000 when he first found the wreck that the Adventure Galley was stripped to the bone before it was destroyed and that therefore he did not expect to find any treasure. Now that a magnificent ingot has “literally” hit him on head (in actual fact he literally picked it up from the seabed, as is clear from a screencap of the History channel footage), instead of concluding from this that the wreck is likely not the Adventure Galley, Clifford has chosen to embrace it as Kidd’s legendary treasure no matter how groundless a claim it is. The ingot is so awesome on its own it really doesn’t need this kind of sensationlism tarnishing its cool.


13th c. rune stick found in Odense dig

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

From the dig that brought you the barrels full of 14th century human excreta in the city center of Odense, Denmark, the latest find is a small wooden stick inscribed with runes in the early 13th century. Excavations were already complete (the last day was August 29th, 2014) when archaeologists picked out three small pieces of wood while processing the large number of finds. The three fragments fit together to form a stick 8.5 centimeters (3.3 inches) long, 1.2 cm (.47 inches) wide and a few millimeters thick. Archaeologists saw there were lines on the front and back and recognized them as runes.

Lisbeth Imer, a rune expert from The National Museum of Denmark was called in to examine the stick. Preserved for 800 years in the anoxic, water-logged environment, the wood was soft with the texture of cold butter. After conservation — a long soak in water-soluble wax — the wood will firm up, but it might also obscure key details of the runes making them harder to interpret accurately. Imer therefore had to work with the soft piece as it was. There’s also a divot missing in the middle and at some point in its long life the stick was gouged by a root growing against the back.

She was nonetheless able to extract key words. The runes are in Latin (the runic alphabet can be used to write in any language, just like the alphabet I’m using right now). There’s the word salu, which can mean “good health” and the back is inscribed t = umi or t = ume famulum suum which together can be read as “Tomme his servant,” Tomme being the stick’s owner and the “his” referring to God. It seems, therefore, that this rune stick was an amulet meant to keep its bearer healthy. A broken hole at one end suggests it may have been worn on a string.

It’s the first runic inscription on a wooden stick found in Denmark in 50 years, but we know these sorts of objects were widespread in medieval Scandinavia despite their relatively poor survival rate because a stash of 670 rune sticks were discovered during excavations at the Bryggen commercial buildings in Bergen, Norway, after a 1955 fire. This rune stick was also found in a commercial milieu. It was unearthed in a layer containing the remains of trade stalls from the 1200s when the area is known to have had a fish market before it was moved just north to a site still known today as Fisketorvet or Fish Square.

The rune stick was displayed to the public on April 25th at Møntergården, Odense’s cultural history museum, as part of Research Day, but it won’t be exhibited again until conservation is completed.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Runes shmunes. What about the poop?! I’m delighted to report there is an update on the barrels of 700-year-old poop excavated at I. Vilhelm Werners Square in 2013, and it may be the greatest update of all time.

First about the barrels themselves: dendrochronological analysis found that the trees used to make the barrels came from Kolobrzeg, Poland, and were felled from 1348 to 1352 and 1346 to 1358. They were used to transport salt from Poland to Denmark and once the contents were removed, the barrels were repurposed. The poop dates to the 1360s, so the turn-over was quite quick. The staves of used barrels loosen up leaving gaps between them, a bug if you’re trying to carry salt, but a feature if you’re using them as latrines. The loose staves allowed liquid to slowly seep out into the ground leaving the solid waste to compact in the barrel. Studies have shown that with proper seepage, a single barrel can remain usable for one person for 20 years.

The compacted poop was removed from the two barrels and is being kept in plastic bags in refrigerators at the Odense City Museums. Researchers take out a teaspoon at a time, run it through a sieve and look at the particulate matter under the microscope. Grains and seeds can be identified by their cellular structure to give us a comprehensive picture of people’s diets in medieval Odense. So far they have found the remains of a variety of lovely fruits — apples, figs, elderberries, raspberries, blackberries, wild strawberries — and mustard seed which would have been used as a flavoring spice. They also found miller’s bran and corn cockle seeds from a weed that grows alongside edible grains. The seeds are actually poisonous, but because they are difficult to separate from the grain during harvest and processing, a few seeds make their way up the food chain and down the poop chute. Corn cockles are most commonly found in rye fields, so it was likely rye bread or porridge.

Regarding the moss discovered in the barrels, moss has been found in medieval latrines in England as well. Several species of moss make excellent toilet paper, it seems, and sphagnum moss, aka peat moss, not only provides a comfy wipe, but it has additional hygienic properties as well. There are two kinds of cells in the leaves. The larger of the two can hold water much like a sponge, so it acts as a wet wipe, washing the business area instead of just drying it. In the Middle Ages it was also believed to have antiseptic properties. Interestingly, peat moss is a common additive to modern composting toilets because it encourages the absorption of liquid, encourages aerobic action and helps block odor.

Speaking of odor, Odense City Museums invited Kouki Fujioka from Tokyo’s Jikei University to take a whiff of their medieval poop. He is a scent expert, you see, and has developed a system to detect, isolate and categorize scents. He took odor samples from the barrel excrement and will measure the proportions of acids and alcohols in them which will indicate the level of spoilage. He will also work to replicate the various hearty aromas of 700-year-old human excrement which may sound less than enjoyable, but the museum is excited about the possibilities of recreating the smells of the past. Imagine a museum exhibition in Smell-O-Vision. What an intensely immersive connection to history.

Human excrement isn’t the only scatological gold unearthed at this site. Archaeologists also found a perfectly formed dog crap from the 12th century, a very rare survival, which they are analyzing for pollen and seeds to discover what dogs ate in medieval Denmark.

Oh and they found some gold gold too — a 14th century cross pendant and a delicate 13th century ring with a cabochon garnet — if you’re the kind of weirdo who’s into that sort of thing.





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