Fragments of 13th c. Merlin text found in Bristol library

Fragments of a 13th century Old French text of Arthurian legends have been found inside a series of later bound books in the Bristol Central Library. Seven handwritten manuscript fragments from the Vulgate Cycle, also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, were discovered by the University of Bristol’s Special Collections Librarian Michael Richardson while perusing a collection of the works of 15th century French scholar Jean Gerson.

The four-volume edition of Gerson’s works was printed in Strasbourg between 1494 and 1502, but it seems they were not bound because the first binding appears to have been done in England in the early 16th century. That’s when the fragments of the Old French manuscript became integrated into the books. Parchment was expensive and bookbinders often reused old “waste materials” in their bindings instead of using clean sheets. There is evidence on the leaves that at this time they were pasted on the front and back boards of the books. When the books were rebound at a later date, the pasted fragments were unglued from the boards and used as flyleaves (those blank pages you still find today at the beginning and end of a volume).

Richardson recognized the names of key figures, most notably Merlin, from the Arthurian tales on the oft-recycled parchment pieces. He called in Dr. Leah Tether, an Arthurian expert from the University of Bristol’s English department to assess the significance of those names and manuscript fragments. She identified them as pieces of the Vulgate Cycle, a telling of the Arthur legend that predates all English-language versions and is thought to have been Sir Thomas Malory’s source for Le Morte D’Arthur. There are other surviving examples of the text, these fragments have intriguing differences in the narrative.

The seven leaves represent a continuous sequence of the Estoire de Merlin narrative (though they are bound ‘out of chronological order’ in their current form) – specifically in a section known as the ‘Suite Vulgate de Merlin’ (Vulgate Continuation of Merlin).

Events begin with Arthur, Merlin, Gawain and assorted other knights, including King Ban and King Bohors preparing for battle at Trebes against King Claudas and his followers.

Merlin has been strategising the best plan of attack. There follows a long description of the battle. At one point, Arthur’s forces look beleaguered but a speech from Merlin urging them to avoid cowardice leads them to fight again, and Merlin leads the charge using Sir Kay’s special dragon standard that Merlin had gifted to Arthur, which breathes real fire.

In the end, Arthur’s forces are triumphant. Kings Arthur, Ban and Bohors, and the other knights, are accommodated in the Castle of Trebes.

That night Ban and his wife, Queen Elaine, conceive a child. Elaine then has a strange dream about a lion and a leopard, the latter of which seems to prefigure Elaine’s yet-to-be-born son. Ban also has a terrifying dream in which he hears a voice. He wakes up and goes to church.

We are told that during Arthur’s stay in the kingdom of Benoic for the next month, Ban and Bohors are able to continue to fight and defeat Claudas, but after Arthur leaves to look after matters in his own lands, Claudas is once again triumphant.

The narrative then moves to Merlin’s partial explanation of the dreams of Ban and Elaine. Afterwards, Merlin meets Viviane who wishes to know how to put people to sleep (she wishes to do this to her parents). Merlin stays with Viviane for a week, apparently falling in love with her, but resists sleeping with her. Merlin then returns to Benoic to rejoin Arthur and his companions.

In the newly discovered fragments, there tend to be longer, more detailed descriptions of the actions of various characters in certain sections – particularly in relation to battle action.

Where Merlin gives instructions for who will lead each of the four divisions of Arthur’s forces, the characters responsible for each division are different from the version of the narrative we know.

Sometimes only small details are changed – for example, King Claudas is wounded through the thighs in the known version, where in the fragments the nature of the wound is left unsaid, which may lead to different interpretations of the text owing to thigh wounds often being used as metaphors for impotence or castration.

The damage to the fragments from their use in two different bindings will make it challenging to fully decipher the text. Researchers will use infrared imaging, if necessary, to read through the damage and publish a full transcript of the exciting new finds.

Leonardo’s thumbprint found on Royal Collections drawing

A fingerprint believed to have been left by Leonardo da Vinci has been found on one of his drawings in the UK’s Royal Collections. It was discovered by Alan Donnithorne, formerly the head paper conservator of the Royal Collections, who found the thumbprint on a red ink anatomical drawing. Fingerprints have been found on other works by Leonardo da Vinci, but this is the most likely one to have been left by the artist himself on one of the drawings in the Royal Collections.

The drawing, The Cardiovascular System and Principal Organs of a Woman, was made around 1509-1510. Donnithorne found the thumbprint on the left side of the sheet near the subject’s arm. The mark was left in the same dark red ink as Leonardo used to make the drawing. There is also a smudged print left by his left index finger on the back of the sheet.

The UK is going all-out to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death on May 2nd of this year. It is taking the utmost advantage of the Queen Elizabeth II’s 550 works by the master, the largest single collection of Leonardos in the world. Remarkably, they’ve been together as a group since Leonardo died half a millennium ago and have been in the Royal Collection since the 17th century. To mark the anniversary, there will be 12 simultaneous exhibitions of Leonardo drawings across the UK from February 1st through May 6th. Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing features 12 different drawings on display at each of the 12 museums in Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Derby, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, Sunderland, Belfast and Glasgow. The 144 drawings cover a wide range of interests pursued by the polymath: painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany.

The anatomical drawing and its thumbprint will go on display Friday at the National Museum Cardiff. After that, all 144 drawings will join up with a few dozen more of Leonardo’s works from the Royal Collections to go on display at The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace from May 24th until October 13th. This will be the largest exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci works in 65 years. The exhibition will travel to Scotland next where it will be exhibited at the Queen’s Gallery in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh, from November 22nd through March 15th, 2020. That will be the largest collection of Leonardo’s works ever shown in Scotland.

In conjunction with the exhibitions, Alan Donnithorne has published a new scientific study of 80 of the Leonardo works in the Royal Collections. Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look reexamines those works in the light of the latest analytical technologies, including microscopy, ultraviolet imaging, infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence (XRF).

One by one, Leonardo’s processes of creation are revealed, from his choice of paper and the composition of the specialist grounds used for his drawings, to his first touches in chalk, ink or metalpoint, and on to the finished compositions.

Many of these features are of course invisible to the naked eye, and have been so for centuries, ever since Leonardo took his pen from the paper. Infrared images reveal underdrawings unseen for 500 years, published here for the first time. Ultraviolet photography brings back to life now-vanished metalpoint sketches; while spectrographic analysis allows us to explore the origin and precise chemistry of Leonardo’s papers and grounds.

16th c. Greenland mummies had heart disease

Researchers have discovered evidence of heart disease in five mummies from 16th-century Greenland. An international team of anthropologists, medical doctors and technicians examined the mummies with a Computed Tomography scanner in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Shapiro Cardiovascular Center last year. They were looking for arterial plaque, the material that lines the arteries, hardening and narrowing them and creating blockages that can result in fatal heart attacks and strokes.

Atherosclerosis and the cardiovascular disease that result from it is the leading cause of death in the U.S. today. The research team wanted to find out if it was common 500 years ago in Greenland, part of a larger project investigating the heart health of mummified human remains from pre-industrial hunter-gatherer communities.

The mummies of four young adults and one child from the Inuit community in 16th century Greenland were subjected to high-resolution CT scans. The organs were not intact inside the bodies, but even without hearts to explore, researchers were able to detect hardened calcium, ie plaque, in the remains of blood vessels in the chest and neck.

From Egypt to Mongolia and now Greenland, mummies throughout the ages have shown evidence of atherosclerosis. The Greenland mummies were of particular interest due to their diet, which would have primarily consisted of fish and sea mammals.

While increased fish consumption is commonly touted as heart-healthy — which may make the findings of atherosclerosis seem surprising — [associate director of the Brigham’s Cardiovascular Imaging Program Dr. Ron] Blankstein emphasized that scientists still have much to learn about its relationship to cardiovascular health. For example, although it is known that consuming fish rich in omega-3 fats has benefits, some types of fish can also be high in cholesterol and, in the current era, contain toxins like mercury or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that may pose risk, he said.

Lifestyle factors, such as exposure to cooking smoke in their dwellings, may have also contributed to the mummified individuals developing cardiovascular disease during their lifetimes, Blankstein said. Given that and the small sample sizes of these mummy scans, he noted that the team’s findings shouldn’t be taken too much to heart, so to speak.

Grave of important Christian Roman woman found in Ljubljana

A burial ground centered around the grave of an elite Christian Roman woman has been discovered in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Modern-day Ljubljana began in 1st century B.C. as a castrum, a Roman fort, that developed an associated civilian settlement. Historians believe the city of Emona was built by imperial decree in 14 A.D. after the legion departed. Located on the Ljubljanica river, it was an important center of trade between the Adriatic and the Danube area and was the seat of a bishopric in the Early Christian era. It was destroyed by Attila the Hun in the 5th century. The city of Ljubljana grew on the site in the Early Middle Ages.

Archaeologists began excavating the site on Gosposvetska Street in August of 2017 in advance of construction. Roman graves had been found nearby before and experts expected they might find more. They did indeed, more in quantity and higher in quality than expected. The cemetery, about 2000 feet away from the northern walls of the Roman city, dates to the second half of the 4th century A.D. and contains more than 350 burials. Many of them are simple inhumation graves. Others include expensive sarcophagi that were made out of limestone quarried from Moravče, 20 miles east of the city. The remains of a six-year-old girl were found interred in one of these pricey sarcophagi. She was buried with a lovely set of jewelry — one solid gold bracelet, one dark glass bracelet, a necklace of gold rings and glass beads and a gold finger ring with a green stone.

The stand-out is a burial chapel or mausoleum that contains the remains of one 30 to 40-year-old woman who must have been a very important member of the community.

The most stunning artifact recovered beneath Gosposvetska Street was a transparent blue glass bowl found next to the woman’s body. The 1,700-year old vessel is decorated on the outside with grapes, and vine leafs and tendrils. A Greek inscription on the inside of the bowl instructs the owner to “Drink to live forever, for many years!”

This exquisite drinking bowl could have been used in both regular daily life as well as for burial ceremonies, and an analysis of its chemical composition points to its manufacture somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean region. The grapevine decorations have their role in the Christian Eucharist and Communion, but have their origins in motifs associated with Dionysus, the pagan god of wine and ecstasy.

Archaeologists are also interested in how the woman’s tomb developed over time. It seems that possibly within a decade of her burial, her square chapel was demolished and a larger (30-by-40-foot) structure was built to enclose her tomb. Around the new structure and inside it, Emona’s Christian community began to practice a burial practice known as ad sanctos, in which the deceased are interred near the tombs of saints and other remains considered holy.

If she was the first or very early burial, her grave’s location at the center of a cemetery that grew up around her would identify the woman not just a person of high social status, but also someone of religious significance the Christian community that flourished in the city after the last of the persecutions under Diocletian in the early 4th century.

Her skeletal remains will be studied in the hope that some of the questions about her status in the community, the date of her death and her origins might be answered. A selection of the most exceptional artifacts discovered in the graves have gone on display in the treasury of the City Museum of Ljubljana.

Roman cemetery found under Lisbon restaurant

Lisbon is a city with thousands of years of human habitation behind it, so whenever there is construction in the heart of that involves foundation or basement work, the site must be archaeologically surveyed first. So in 2016 when one its most famous restaurants, Solar dos Presuntos, a culinary icon of the city renown for its traditional Portuguese fare, decided to expand its kitchen and build a school attached to the restaurant, archaeologists got first crack at the site. Contractor archaeology company Neoepica was hired to work on this project, beginning with a preliminary study, diagnostic and test pits.

Lisbon has a rich history going back to the Neolithic and there were Phoenicians living in what would become Lisbon since at least 1200 B.C. Rome established a foothill in what they called Olissipo after the defeat of Carthage by Scipio Africanus in 206 B.C. The city was an important and prosperous trade center, thanks to its location on the Atlantic Ocean and Tagus river. Lisbon’s main square, the Praça da Figueira, is located over a major Roman cemetery in use from the 1st through the 4th century.

With all this density of history in the city center, archaeologists expected to make some discoveries where the restaurant was planning its addition, but because later construction often makes mincemeat of ancient remains, they weren’t expecting to hit a motherlode of Roman material. First they discovered 16th and 15th century artifacts, primarily pottery — dishes, cups, vessels — in very good condition. Then the bones began to appear.

Twenty feet under the surface, the team unearthed 28 skeletons from inhumation burials and urns containing the ashes of multiple individuals. Altogether, the remains of 60 people were found in the cemetery. Several of the inhumations included grave goods and funerary offerings left at the time of burial. These include typical Roman offerings like lamps, which illuminated the way to the underworld, and coins to secure the deceased would have the wherewithal to pay their way. There’s also a highly unusual object that is still in the process of being studied and evaluated, but appears to be a doctor’s case containing surgical instruments.

The finds are mostly in excellent condition. Neoepica archaeologist Paulo Rebelo described it as “possibly the best-preserved Roman necropolis found in recent times.” The remains have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but based on the objects found, the cemetery dates to the 2nd or 3rd century.

The borders of the cemetery have not been pinpointed by this excavation. The team dug a little further afield and found additional traces of the necropolis in several directions. The archaeological material in the planned construction area has been salvaged, so the expansion of the restaurant will now be allowed to proceed. The finds have been transferred to Neoepica’s research laboratory. When the study is complete, the remains will be given to the city council which will determine where they will go on display.