Ali Atar sword digitized in 3D

An exquisite sword designed by the finest metalworkers of Grenada and wielded by one of the last great military leaders in Muslim Spain has been digitized in 3D. It belonged to Ali Atar, Warden of Loja and Lord of Zagra, who has become a heroic figure with many tales of dubious accuracy told about his background, bravery and generosity.

According to legend, Ali Atar started out as a trader in spices who climbed the ranks of Andalusian military leadership thanks to his skill in battle. He served Muhammad XII, Sultan of Granada, known by Christians as King Boabdil. Muhammad was also related to Ali Atar, having married Atar’s beautiful daughter Moraima whom he loved beyond all others. Muhammad’s reign was a tumultuous one riven by internecine warfare. Christian rulers took advantage of Grenada’s weakness to take Muslim cities and chip away at what was left of the last sultanate. The Sultan tried to flip the script and in April 1483, he and Ali Atar tried to take the Christian city of Lucena (Cordoba). The battle was lost and Ali Atar, then 90 years old, died in the fight, his trusty sword in hand.

Ali Atar’s long life and battlefield death mirrored the final century of Muslim rule in Spain. The Nasrid dynasty, rulers of the Emirate of Grenada, was the last Muslim dynasty in the Iberian Peninsula. Muhammed XII was captured at the Battle of Lucena and was only freed after he swore allegiance to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was a meaningless allegiance as their Most Catholic Majesties had no interest in maintaining any kind of Islamic rule in Iberia, even under their ostensible suzerainty. In 1491, Ferdinand and Isabella besieged Grenada and on January 2nd, 1492, nine years after Ali Atar’s death, Muhammad XII surrendered the Alhambra palace to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I and went into exile in Morocco.

His sword’s fame outlived Ali Atar. Covered in gold and ivory, the sword was taken by Christian forces after Atar’s defeat at Lucena and is now one of the most precious treasures of the Toledo Army Museum. Researchers from the Polytechnic University of Valencia and Toledo company IngHeritag3D worked together to create a 3D model of this storied weapon.

Its design and materials posed challenges to the digitizing team.

First they photographed the sword from many angles using a technique called photogrammetry. Then they overlapped all the images, drew planimetries (drawings of the meticulous filigree of the grip) and generated its 3D model.

“These techniques offer the possibility of valuing relevant pieces inside and outside museums, since three-dimensional modelling is prepared both for specialists -who can manipulate the piece virtually-, and for being shared publicly and interactively through the Internet,” says engineer Margot Gil-Melit├│n, co-author of the work.

Using a web viewer, any user can use their mouse to check an exact replica of the handle of this genet sword, a type of genuinely Nasrid weapon introduced in Al-Andalus by the Zenetas (Berber people from whom it takes its name). Ali Atar’s sword has a knob in the shape of a bulbous dome, an ivory fist carved with drawings and Arabic letters, and a golden arriax (sword grip) topped with zoomorphic figures.

To record the details of this fine ornamentation, the researchers have devised solutions that have facilitated the analysis of highly reflective materials and complicated geometries. Their workflow could also be applied to characterize other museum pieces.

Here’s the completed 3D model of the grip of the sword:

Unique medieval toddler bootie found in Switzerland

Archaeologists excavating the town of Saint-Ursanne in the Swiss canton of Jura have discovered an exceptional decorated leather toddler bootie from the Middle Ages. Sanitation works on the town’s canal network over the past three years have given archaeologists the opportunity to explore Saint-Ursanne’s medieval history and a wealth of organic remains have been found in the eastern part of the old town thanks to a large depression left by the river Doubs. More than a hundred fragments of leather have been found under the old town thus far, preserved in the waterlogged soil for hundreds of years.

The shoe is the most remarkable of the leather finds. It measures 6.7 inches by 5 inches and has a goat leather upper and a cow leather sole. The boot goes high up the ankle and has leather button closures. It is sized for a child about 12 months old. This design was a popular in the second half of the 14th century, but very few examples are known to have survived to the present day. This particular piece is even more of a stand-out because it is decorated with a foliate pattern on the front and a geometric check on the back of the bootie. Only five similar shoes have been found in Europe — three in London, two in the Netherlands. The bootie is unique in the Swiss archaeological record.

The leather remains were transferred to the Lausanne Shoe Museum for examination and conservation by specialists Marquita and Serge Volken. Like most surviving leather buried underground, the shoes are a uniform dark brown. If they did have decorative color elements, any indications of it are now lost.

The excavation in the eastern sector of Saint-Ursanne’s old town has also unearthed significant wood architectural elements from the Middle Ages, also preserved in the waterlogged environment. Most recently archaeologists have discovered a large wood construction underneath modern-day Rue du 23 juin. Experts have not been able to determine yet what type of structure it was or what its function may have been. Excavations are ongoing.

Elite Etruscan tomb unearthed in Corsica

Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have discovered a high-ranking Etruscan grave in Aleria, Corsica. Dating to the 4th century B.C., the grave was dug out of the rock in a hypogeum (an underground chamber), a type of burial exclusively reserved for the elite of Etruscan society.

The entrance to the tomb is accessed by a corridor 20 feet long. A flight of steps lead to the corridor. Excavators found the tomb chamber six and a half feet under the surface still intact and sealed by a thick layer of clay, pebbles, coal and potsherds. It appears the seal was opened and closed several times, likely to make fresh offerings or inter the newly deceased.

The ceiling of the tomb had collapsed and the interior was filled with earth so archaeologists had to dig from the top down. The excavation revealed a rectangular chamber 11 square feet in area containing pottery, bronze objects and a mirror. Three black-lacquered drinking vessels and two skyphoi (a wide two-handled cup) were found near a skull. This is as far down as archaeologists have gotten, even with the lowest step of the staircase. Any other human remains and grave goods are still pinned down under the collapsed material. Forensic specialists will aid in this final excavation phase.

The discovery, announced this week, could yield new details on the existence of a stable Etruscan population in Corsica and help archaeologists understand the slow demise of the Etruscan civilization.

“It’s the missing link which will allow us to piece together Etruscan funerary rites, but it also reinforces the hypothesis that before the Roman conquest (in -259 B.C), Aleria was a transit point in the Tyrrhenian Sea, blending Etruscan, Carthaginian and Phocaean interests”, head curator Franck Leandri said.

The grave appears to belong to a high-ranking official, holding “about 15 ceramic vases similar to Etruscan pieces and what appears to be a mirror or the lid of a casing”, anthropologist Catherine Rigeade said at the site.

“We have some knowledge of Etruscan objects, but we know very little about Etruscan subjects; here we have both”, Rigeade added.

The tomb is part of a large necropolis with thousands of graves that was used in Etruscan and Roman times. Its existence was known and more than 100 graves were excavated by archaeologist Jean Jehasse in the 1960s, but the land is privately owned and slated for development which is why INRAP was given access in the first place. When the hypogeum tomb was discovered, its rarity and significance spurred authorities to order extended excavations. An example of a chamber tomb with a corridor entryway hasn’t been found in France for more than four decades.

A number of different grave types have been unearthed in the dig ranging in date from the 3rd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. Archaeologists have found funeral pyres, pit burials, one with a tegula and imbrex (fired clay roof tiles) cover, masonry and wood formwork graves and more than 200 funerary offerings including 100 intact vases. Several stand-out pieces of jewelry were in the graves: a gold signet ring with a female face, a gold ring with an intarsio gemstone engraved with a seriously adorable tiny animal (possibly a squirrel) playing with a large ball discovered on the pubic bone of a burial dating to the 1st-3rd century A.D., and a pair of gold earrings festooned with stars found at the feet of an individual buried in a brick grave.

The skeletal remains that have been unearthed thus far are in unexpectedly good condition. Corsica’s highly acidic soil usually causes bones to disintegrate over time, but complete articulated skeletons have been discovered here.

Russian aristocratic silver goes on display

The massive collection of more than 2,000 pieces of silver secreted away in the walls of a Saint Petersburg palace and discovered during renovations in 2012 has gone on display for the first time at the Tsarskoye Selo palace museum in Pushkin. The Narshykin family had bought the palace in 1799 and lived there until 1917 when the fled the country and the Bolsheviks on the double. They left behind many valuable objects which were transferred State Hermitage Museum in 1920.

But those were just the pieces that were easy to find. Before they left Russia with their portable wealth, the family carefully wrapped their antique silver and stashed it in a hidey hole between the second and third floors of the palace. It was so effective a hiding place that it wasn’t even found when the palace was extensively renovated in the 1960s. It took a three-year project of re-engineering and restoration that began in 2009 to break through a brick wall and reveal the secret room crammed with cases full of treasure.

Apparently some of the crew tried to take a cut of the loot, hiding it away before the construction company alerted the authorities to the find, but they weren’t up to the job the Narshykin’s had done so thoroughly before them and the police found the pieces when they searched the building.

The Naryshkin family was one of the most important in Tsarist Russia going back hundreds of years. It could trace its roots to the 15th century, but the family leapt to prominence when the beautiful Natalya Naryshkina (1651-1694) wed Tsar Alexis after his first wife died birthing their 13th child. Their son would become Peter the Great and she was rule as regent of Russia during his minority. Peter showered favor on his maternal family and the Naryshkin princes held high office in the government, military and court from then until the brutal end of the Russian monarchy.

In July of 1918, Colonel Kiril Mihailovich Naryshkin, adjutant to White Russian Lieutenant General Sergey Nikolaevich Rozanov, was one of the first people to enter the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. Rozanov and Naryshkin broke down the defensive palisade encircling the house and went in together. There were survivors left to rescue, only evidence of the slaughter that had taken place six days earlier when the guards, knowing White Russian forces were almost upon them, executed the Tsar, his family and loyal attendants.

While there was some talk at the time the treasure was discovered that Narshykin descendants might make an ownership claim on the silver or of the finders getting 50% of its value, but surprising nobody the collection was declared historically significant and therefore property of the state. Since then it has been studied, inventoried and conserved and is now on public view in the Catherine Palace, the main building of the Tsarskoye Selo palace museum, which is also home to the reconstructed Amber Room.

Royal charter from 1st year of King John’s reign found

An original royal charter from the reign of King John has been discovered in Durham University’s Ushaw College Library. Dr. Benjamin Pohl, a medieval history professor from the University of Bristol, found the rare document while studying the library’s medieval manuscripts with archivist Dr. Jonathan Bush. As they went through the library’s extensive collection of manuscripts, they discovered a box in the safe with documents that had not been officially catalogued; the royal charter was among them.

The charter dates to 1200, the first year of King John’s reign and was issued in York on March 26th making it exactly (almost to the day) 819 years old. In it the King confirms the grant of two hamlets — Cornsay and Hedley Hill in County Durham — to Walter of Caen and Robert FitzRoger. FitzRoger was Lord of Warkworth and Sherriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and both men were the nephews of Simon, a chamberlain of Durham who had received the hamlets more than 15 years earlier as a grant from the Bishop of Durham Hugh de Puiset. Simon wanted to give the hamlets to his nephews but needed the king’s royal charter to make the grants legal and official.

There may have been a undercurrent of political clean-up here too. Hugh de Puiset was thoroughly enmeshed in the turbulent monarchy of Stephen of Blois through the Angevin rulers. He was Stephen’s nephew, either sided against Henry II during his sons’ revolt against him or at least operated shadily in the background against the king. Hugh bought important offices from King Richard for a pretty penny, and when Prince John took control of the throne during Richard’s captivity in Vienna, Hugh opposed him to the point of battle, sending troops against some of John’s properties in the north of England in 1193. Hugh de Puiset died in 1195. John became King of England on May 27th, 1199. Ten months later, John granted Hugh’s nephews the properties his erstwhile enemy had given them.

Very few original charters from John’s first year of kingship have survived. They are usually known from charter rolls (administrative records of all royal charters) and some contemporary copies that were spread around the country and kept in institutional archives. This royal charter is all the more important because it is only known from the charter roll and there are differences between it and the administrative record. Some are minor differences — spelling mostly — but one is a very notable discrepancy in the list of witnesses. The charter roll only records the Archbishop of York, the Chief Justiciar of England and the Sheriff of Yorkshire and Northumberland as witnesses present at the issue of the charter on March 26th, 1200. The original charter has a much longer list of witnesses, adding the Constable of Chester, the Sheriff of Berkshire, Cornwall and Devon, the Royal Justice and Baron of the Exchequer, the Lord of Kendal, one Germanus Tison and Henry, son of the Archbishop of York, to the ones named in the charter roll.

Dr Pohl said: “Discovering the original charter at Ushaw is extremely exciting, not least because it allows us to develop a fuller picture of the people who were present at York on 26 March 1200 and eager to do business with the new king.

“Medieval charters are important not just because of the legal acts they contain, but also for what they can tell us about the society and political culture at the time. Indeed, their issuing authorities, beneficiaries and witnesses provide a cross section of medieval England’s ruling elites.

“Our charter might best be described, therefore, as a kind of ‘who’s who’ of Northern England (and beyond) at the turn of the thirteenth century.”

And then some. The Durham Residential Research Library collection also includes the original charter in which Hugh de Puiset granted Simon the two hamlets. The discovery of the royal charter allows scholars to compare the two documents side-by-side.