13th c. trebuchet ball found in Edinburgh

Archaeologists in Edinburgh have unearthed a stone artillery ball of the type launched from a trebuchet in the Middle Ages. The heavy sphere looks like a cannonball, only it is made of solid rock and was being hurled at castle walls 200 years before gunpowder reached Scotland. The type and size of the ball date it to the 13th century, a time when Scotland was under heavy assault by Edward I in full Malleus Scotorum mode.

The find was made in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh’s Old Town where excavations are taking place in advance of construction of a new hotel. The neighborhood lies in a hollow below Edinburgh Castle, a prime location for a medieval catapult balls to settle into for hundreds of years.

There’s a candidate for the precise date when the ball was catapulted: the 1296 Siege of Edinburgh during the First War of Scottish Independence. This was the first major battle at the castle since it was built in the 12th century. For three days, Edward bombarded Edinburgh Castle non-stop using all the heavy artillery in his arsenal. This could be one of the many balls catapulted by Longshanks during the siege, or it could be one of the ones lobbed at him from the castle ramparts.

The siege saw Edward I capture Edinburgh Castle and hold it under English rule for 18 years, plundering treasure from across Scotland including the Stone of Destiny in the process.

John Lawson, City of Edinburgh Council archaeologist, said: “It looks like the type of ball which would have been fired by a trebuchet, one of the most powerful catapults used in the Middle Ages.

“Worldwide, the most famous account of a trebuchet is that of Warwolf, the giant catapult used by Edward I’s army at Stirling Castle in 1304.

“What we’ve discovered here suggests similar weapons were also used in Edinburgh, possibly even during Edward I’s Siege of Edinburgh in 1296, when the Stone of Destiny was stolen and the castle taken out of Scottish hands.

“We always knew this area of the Grassmarket could shed new light on Edinburgh in the dark ages, and here we are with the discovery of a medieval weapon. It’s a really exciting find, particularly if we can prove its links to the Siege of Edinburgh.”

The castle was besieged many, many times after the first big to-do, so determining with certainty when this one ball was launched is difficult (read nigh on impossible).

700-year-old sword found in Spanish castle

Archaeologists have unearthed a medieval sword in excellent condition at the Castle of Aín in the Spanish region of Castellón. It is three feet long with a five-inch guard and a spherical pommel. A central groove runs down the blade and two bronze rings are riveted to the hilt. Its type and archaeological context date the sword to the 14th century.

[A]rchaeologists discovered the sword under a mortar floor in a large room with a hearth and a work bench. They made the discovery while they were working on their second phase of a project aimed at strengthening the southwest sector of the castle wall. This is meant to stop the deterioration of the monument and guarantee its stability, with the hopes of making the castle a first-rate historic site.

Perched in the craggy foothills of the Sierra del Espadán, the Castle of Aín was built in the 13th century by the Moorish rulers of the Taifa of Valencia. It would not stay in the hands of its builders for long. The taifa and castle were conquered by James I of Aragon in 1238. Relations with the conquered Moors were not peaceful, with numerous internal revolts and reconquests of the region by two different Muslim dynasties.

After the conquest of Valencia, James I signed a treaty with his own son-in-law, the future Alfonso X of Castile, divvying up the conquered territories, but it took years for the both parties to iron out the thorny issues. A century later, with the Hundred Years’ War raging and external alliances driving conflict, the uneasy treaty of 1244 fell apart. The War of the Two Peters, in which Peter of Castile and Peter IV of Aragon duked it out over their shared border for 20 years (1356-1375) with few gains made and none kept, ended in a stalemate. The Castle of Aín took heavy damage in the fighting.

After the unification of Castile and Aragon and the final defeat of Muslim forces in the 1500s, the castle’s strategic importance waned and there was little incentive to rebuild. Today it is a ruin. A few defensive walls still stand, a tower, a cistern, an inner drawbridge over a moat. The government of Catalonia and the Aín City Council are funding the excavations and structural reinforcements that will stabilize the dilapidated remains.

Intact 18th c. ice house found in London

A large ice house from the late 18th century has been unearthed by buildings archaeologists in central London. Discovered off of Regent’s Park, the Ice House is more than 24 feet wide and 31 feet deep. It is an egg-shaped cupola made of red brick and is in outstanding condition. Even the entrance passage and vaulted antechamber survive intact, unmolested by active construction of massive buildings in the early 19th century and the destruction of a great deal of London during World War II.

In the 1820s the Ice House was used by pioneering ice-merchant and confectioner William Leftwich to store and supply high quality ice to London’s Georgian elites, long before it was possible to manufacture ice artificially. It was extremely fashionable to serve all manner of frozen delights at lavish banquets, and demand was high from catering traders, medical institutions and food retailers. Ice was collected from local canals and lakes in winter and stored, but it was often unclean, and supply was inconsistent.

Leftwich was one of first people to recognise the potential for profit in imported ice: in 1822, following a very mild winter, he chartered a vessel to make the 2000km round trip from Great Yarmouth to Norway to collect 300 tonnes of ice harvested from crystal-clear frozen lakes, an example of “the extraordinary the lengths gone to at this time to serve up luxury fashionable frozen treats and furnish food traders and retailers with ice” (as put by David Sorapure, our Head of Built Heritage). The venture was not without risk: previous imports had been lost at sea, or melted whilst baffled customs officials dithered over how to tax such novel cargo. Luckily, in Leftwich’s case a decision was made in time for the ice to be transported along the Regent’s Canal, and for Leftwich to turn a handsome profit.

The Museum of London Archaeology team unearthed the Ice House in 2015 as part of the redevelopment of Regent’s Crescent, iconic Grade I Listed mews houses originally designed by John Nash, architect to the Prince Regent (later King George IV). The original 1819 structures were destroyed by German bombs during the Blitz and replicas were built in their place in the 1960s. The new development will recreate the originals in exhaustive, period-accurate detail.

The Ice House will play an important role in the redevelopment. It is being restored as the Crescent is being reconstructed. The restored Ice House will be integrated into the Crescent’s gardens. The plan to install a viewing corridor so the remarkable building will be accessible to the public.

Missing Ancient Greek decree found in wall

More than a century after it was lost, a 3rd century B.C. stele has been rediscovered embedded in the outer wall of a home on the island of Amorgos in the Cyclades. The Nikouria decree went missing in 1908 and many researchers have tried and failed to find it ever since. An archaeology student, Stelios Perakis, and archaeologist N. N. Fischer found the piece with the help of local residents.

French archaeologist Théophile Homolle, then director of the French School at Athens, discovered the stele in 1893 in the Panagia Church on the islet of Nikouria in northeastern Amorgos. The inscription records a response to Ptolemy II Philadelphus’ request that delegates be sent to Samos to discuss the Island League’s participation in the games and religious rites in honor of his father Ptolemy I Soter. Ptolemy, friend and general to Alexander the Great and ruler of Egypt after his death in 323 B.C., had “liberated” (really it was more of a take-over) some of the city-states of the Cyclades, restoring their ancient constitutions and repealing their taxes.

His son picked up where the father left off, expanding the Ptolemaic dominance in the Cyclades. The Island League was a political union of the Cycladic islands created by the Ptolemies to cement their influence. In the stele, the League agrees to send a mission to the sacred games held for Ptolemy in Alexandria. The Ptolemy games were also held every four years and the inscription explicitly addresses the obvious rival by stipulated that the members of the League hold the Ptolemaieia in equal importance to the Olympic games. The decree would be proclaimed in all the cities of the League. Ptolemy II would be gifted a gold crown at the cost of 1,000 staters. The stele then details how the island cities would pay for all this and names the three delegates they’d send to Samos. (The name of the third is lost.)

There’s been a lot of debate among scholars about the dating of the Nikouria decree. The first date proffered in 1895 was ca. 285-3 based on a reference to Ptolemy II’s accession to the throne, but Ptolemy didn’t conquer Samos until after his victory in the battle of Kouroupedion in 281 B.C . Later scholars shifted the range to the 260s B.C., likely 262 when the Ptolemaieia was held.

The specific stele is considered important since it provides evidence concerning the balance of power during the first half of the 3rd century BC and the transition of control from the Macedonians to the Ptolemies.

Belying its significance, the stele was not kept in a secure location after is discovery. It was stashed in a stable near the find site for years. That stable was its last known address when all records of its ceased in 1908. It was found again in the wall at a newly renovated home which had once belonged to Stamatis Gripsos, a shepherd from Nikouria. Perhaps he had access to the barnus delicti. The Nikouria decree will now be removed from the wall and moved to the Amorgos archaeological collection.

Megatherium skull collected by Darwin digitally reconstructed

A Megatherium americanum skull fragment collected by Charles Darwin in 1832 has been rediscovered and its two pieces digitally reconnected in a 3D model. When Darwin found the specimen on a beach in Argentina, it was encased in rock (ie, the matrix) which made it difficult to see the details of the fossil. Darwin thought it was a Megatherium skull, but he couldn’t be certain.

He sent it to the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) where Richard Owen, the first Director of the Natural History Museum, applied the Gordian Knot solution and sliced the specimen in two parts. In so doing he revealed a cross-section of the teeth was able to confirm that it was indeed a Megatherium skull fragment. The two pieces were eventually separated — the larger remaining in the RCS collection, the smaller winding up at Down House, Darwin’s home — but the destination of the smaller piece was poorly documented and the connection was lost.

The divided skull came back to the fore when researchers at the Natural History Museum were researching the three Megatherium specimens as part of a project with the ambitious goal of digitizing Darwin’s full collection of mammal fossils. They went way back to the journals of Darwin’s Argentina trip to identify the three specimens, but the the divided one didn’t match his description because of Owen’s cut. Records explained that it was a cross-section but not where the smaller piece was. They could find no records referring to it past 1845.

Having searched the Museum’s huge collection of fossil mammals for the missing fragment, and that of the RCS to no avail, curator of fossil mammals Pip Brewer and palaeobiologist Adrian Lister extended their search to Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, where they were miraculously able to locate the remaining fragment of Darwin’s Megatherium specimen. […]

On September 4 2018, both parts of the specimen were brought to the Museum where 3D specialist Kate Burton scanned both fragments using a 3D surface scanner. This scan is the first time that these fragments of the same Megatherium skull have been united in over 150 years. By scanning both fragments of the specimen, the Museum is able to make these vitally important specimens accessible to all, from scientists and educational groups to artists and enthusiasts across the globe, inspiring the next generation of natural world ambassadors.

The new scans were released on November 24th to celebrate the 159th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Here is the Megatherium, both parts viewable together and apart so you can view the teeth in cross-section.

Oh and they have an aurochs skull! I do love an aurochs skull. They have three specimens, actually, all of them digitized. None of them were collected by Darwin, but this one, which was found near Atholl in Perthshire, Scotland, was documented by Richard Owen in 1846.