Archive for March, 2020

It’s 10 o’clock in Lausanne and all is not well

Monday, March 30th, 2020

For 615 years, Lausanne’s designated night watchman has called out the hour from the bell tower of Lausanne’s cathedral and assured the townspeople that all is well. From his watchtower atop the 153 stone steps of the cathedral belfry, he emerges every hour from 10PM to 2AM, cups his hands around his mouth and cries the hour to each cardinal direction: “This is the watchman! The bell has rung [whatever the hour is]!”

The tradition was established after a fire devastated the city in 1405. During the fire itself, the bells were rung continuously as calls to action. People rallied to put out the fire under their peals of encouragement. The night watchman was appointed to look over the city from the height of the bell tower and keep an eye out for any signs of smoke or fire, shouting the hour to check in and connect with a network of watchmen on the ground who could rapidly rouse the city in case of need.

The job continued unchanged until 1960 when  the city trimmed the hours of the watchman to the current four from the original full night coverage of 9PM to dawn. The hourly ringing of the bells had been automated a decade earlier, fire alarms and sirens had been installed on buildings in 1907 fire emergencies were handled by professionals, and everyone had clocks and watches of their own to figure out the time.

The local press expressed concern that this change sounded the death knell, as it were, of the longstanding tradition and residents rallied to defend their beloved watch, showering the city government with letters demanding the night watchman remain on duty in perpetuity. Today the tradition continues undeterred, a proud holdover of the Middle Ages, a landmark symbol of the city’s history and community spirit. Lausanne is now one of only seven cities in Europe that have a night watchman on duty 365 days a year.

Since 2002, the watchman has been Renato Häusler. For nigh on two decades he has embraced his role for its connection to the city’s past, its significance as intangible cultural heritage and for the unique opportunity it affords him to experience the city at night from on high. Now that another peril is abroad in the land, the night watchman’s vigil has taken on new meaning. He shouts the hour and then he peals Clémence, the bell designated to sound in an emergency, swinging the clapper by hand. Three strikes followed by six strikes and again warn the people of danger.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame of Lausanne was built in the 13th century, but the oldest of the bells, Lombarde, dates to 1493. Clémence is the next in seniority, cast in 1518. With a diameter of 174 cm (5’8.5″) and weighing four tons, she is the second largest of the cathedral’s bells after the bourdon Marie-Madeleine. She rings a C note.

(The article erroneously states Clémence is made of steel. Like most of her kind, she’s made of bell metal, a high-tin bronze alloy that is more rigid and sonorous than regular bronze. The clapper is soft steel.)

The canton of Vaud of which Lausanne is the capital has the highest coronavirus rates in Switzerland. There is no stay at home order in place yet, but public gatherings of more than five people have been banned and the thriving night life that the watchman once watched over has gone silent, lending him fresh insight into what his predecessors experienced.

“Since these restrictive measures urging people to stay at home, it has completely changed,” said Hausler.

“It is quiet all week, even from 8:00pm, and when I get here, there is hardly any activity around the cathedral or even in the city so it brings a tranquility that I have never experienced before.

“There is a real calm which resembles what it would have been like in the past, before there was all this traffic noise.

“There is perhaps just one last thing that would bring us right back to how things were in the Middle Ages: turning out the lights.”

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Bronze Age warrior toolkit found at battlefield site

Sunday, March 29th, 2020

Here’s a follow-up post that’s been almost a decade in coming and is all the richer from the long wait. The original story reported in 2011 was about the discovery of human, animal and material remains in the Tollense Valley of northern Germany strongly suggesting a major Bronze Age battle had taken place nearby. This was the first evidence of a battle from this period, perhaps even the earliest ever found.

Dating to around 1200 B.C., the bones were almost all confirmed to be of young men some of whom had suffered fatal blunt and sharp-force trauma. There were no indications of formal burials — the remains appear to have been washed down to the find site from a battlefield up the Tollense River — and the remains of wooden clubs and horses found also added to the evidence of a prehistoric battle. Evidence of violent events and conflicts going back to the Stone Age has been found, but nothing like the bones of a hundred individuals, their horses and weapons.

Human bones had been pulled out of the Tollense River since the 1980s, most significantly a humerus with a bronze arrowhead still embedded in it found in 1996. It was that arrowhead, whose design dated it to between 1300 and 1100 B.C., that gave archaeologists the first temporal classification of the Tollense Valley remains. Later discoveries narrowed down the dates of the battlefield activity to ca. 1300-1250 B.C. The first systematic excavation of the area was done in 2008 and the first research published in 2011.

All told, more than 12,000 pieces of human bone have been unearthed at the Tollense site, and more than 140 individuals have been identified from the bone material. They were young adult men in good general health who suffered perimortem trauma from long and short-range weapons. Some healed bone lesions indicate they were experienced fighters. Initial DNA and stable isotope analyses found some of the individuals were not local to the Tollense Valley, although it’s not clear where they came from originally.

In 2016, a new archaeological exploration of the site discovered something unusual and highly significant: a group of 31 objects that are believed to have been the personal toolkit of a Bronze Age warrior. The artifacts were found by divers in the riverbed at the location dubbed Weltzin 28. Several bronze artifacts — tools, pins, arrowheads — had been found at this location before, but this group of bronze scrap metal pieces was packed closely together even after millennia in a river, so they must have been in a wooden container of a wrapped in a textile that has long since disintegrated.

The assemblage includes a bronze awl with a birchwood handle, a rare curved sickle knife, a chisel, bronze sheet fragments, ingot fragments, bronze scrap pieces, a star-decorated belt box of the Dabel type, three dress pins and a bronze spiral. Three bronze cylinders in the assemblage may have been the fasteners of the rotted container.

Radiocarbon dating of the collection of objects demonstrates that the finds belong to the battlefield layer and they were probably the personal equipment of one of the victims. The finds were studied in a Master’s thesis by Tobias Uhlig and the new results make it increasingly clear that there was a massive violent conflict in the older Nordic Bronze Age (2000–1200 BC). In fact, recent evidence suggests that it is likely to have been on a large scale, clearly stretching beyond regional borders.

Professor Thomas Terberger, from the Department of Pre- and Early History at the University of Göttingen, says, “This is the first discovery of personal belongings on a battlefield and it provides insights into the equipment of a warrior. The fragmented bronze was probably used as a form of early currency. The discovery of a new set of artefacts also provides us with clues about the origins of the men who fought in this battle and there is increasing evidence that at least some of the warriors originated in southern Central Europe.”

The study of the recent discovery has been published in the journal Antiquity.

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8-foot mammoth tusk found in Bavaria

Saturday, March 28th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered an impressively large mammoth tusk in the Bavarian town of Riekofen. The team was expecting to find remains of the 15th century town so the discovery of mammoth remains from the Ice Age came as a surprise. The tusk has yet to be radiocarbon dated, but mammoths went extinct in what is now Bavaria about 20,000 years ago.

At a length of eight feet, the tusk still includes the tip tooth. Its size indicates it likely belonged to an adult bull. Mammoth bones are not uncommon finds, but nearly complete tusks of significant length are extremely rare. Another mammoth relic was found right next to the tusk. It’s a bone about one foot by two feet in dimensions probably also from a mammoth. It is not known right now whether it came from the same animal as the tusk.

Dr. Christoph Steinmann, archaeologist with the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments, thinks the tusk and bone were underwater for some time, which helped preserve them. There used to be a bend in the Danube in this area, and the thick, wet soil applied constant pressure to the external layers of the tooth. Even when the dentin forming the structure inside the tusk cracked and fell apart, the outer layers remained intact. Had they been in dry soil and exposed to air, they would have disintegrated.

To prevent this dangerous exposure, paleontologists coated the tusk with plaster strips, ensuring it could be lifted whole without any loss of bone material. Conservators with the State Office of the Preservation of Monuments will remove the moisture from the tusk gradually over the course of the next year or two (either freeze-drying or PEG, I’d guess). Once it is stabilized, it will go on display in the museum.

The team did find what it was originally looking for, by the way. They discovered a well, rubbish pits, an oven, potsherds and the remains of a Grubenhäuser, a pit-house or sunken featured domestic dwelling, from the Medieval village.

Interesting note from the press release. In Bavaria archaeological excavations abide by the same safe distance regulations that govern construction sites, so digs are continuing in Germany, which has an atypically low rate of coronavirus deaths, when they’ve been shut down as non-essential in so many other countries.

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Polo donkey bones found in Tang Dynasty noblewoman’s tomb

Friday, March 27th, 2020

Archaeologists have identified the bones of probable polo donkeys in the tomb of a Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) noblewoman. Tang-era texts do describe the sport of lvju, or donkey polo, played by royalty and nobility, but this is the first archaeological evidence of it.

The tomb was discovered in 2012 in Xi’an, ancient Chang’an, onetime capital of the Tang Dynasty. The brick structure has a vertical entrance, a corridor and a burial chamber with brick-lined floors. The contents had been looted in antiquity, but there were some artifacts found, including a lead stirrup and a stone epitaph. The tomb and murals of servants and musicians at a funerary feast  indicate she was a member of the societal elite. The epitaph confirmed her status, identifying the tomb as that of the Lady Cui Shi, wife of Bao Gao, governor of two administrative regions in the late Tang Dynasty. The inscription notes she died October 6th, 878, when she was 59 years old, and was buried August 15th, 879.

Chang’an was located at the beginning of the Silk Road and donkeys were highly valued as pack animals to transport goods along the trade routes. Tang Dynasty texts refer to them being used in households and pack animals and in military and governmental transports. An edict of the period prohibited donkeys being killed or eaten. Commoners were known to ride them for transportation, but not the upper classes.

Polo is believed to have developed in Persia and spread east through the influence of the Parthian Empire (ca. 247 B.C. – 224 A.D.). Polo played on horseback was established as a prestigious sport in central China. At the Tang court it was valued as a proving ground for cavalry skills, but it was dangerous, even fatal to play. Lvju used sturdier, shorter, easier to handle donkeys and therefore appealed to women and older players.

Only two pottery figurines of donkeys wearing saddles have been unearthed in Tang tombs in Xi’an. The discovery of skeletal remains of three donkeys among piles of animal bones in the corridor and on the coffin of Cui Shi’s tomb gave researchers the unique opportunity to analyze their bones and determine what they were used for in life and why they were buried in a noble woman’s tomb.

Dental analysis identified the different equid species in the mix. Their ages were determined by tooth eruption on the jaws and wear patterns. Measurements of metatarsals from three individuals determined their sizes. Stable isotope analysis was done on the metatarsals of two specimens.  Micro-CT scans were done of three humeri from two donkeys to determine the biomechanical stress they were subjected to, a marker of whether these donkeys were pack animals in life. Radiocarbon dating found the donkeys’ date range coincides with the one in the epitaph, 856-898 A.D.

One hint to why they were in Cui’s tomb, [Washington University in St. Louis anthropologist Fiona Marshall] says, may lie in the identity of her husband, Bao Gao. Ancient texts reveal that the polo-obsessed Emperor Xizong promoted Bao to the rank of general because of his skills on the polo fields. Polo was wildly popular during the Tang dynasty—for both women and men—but it was also dangerous; riders thrown from their horses were frequently injured or killed. If a woman like Cui wanted to join a game, then riding a donkey—slower, steadier, and lower to the ground—might have been a safer alternative.

When the researchers, led by archaeologist Songmei Hu of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, analyzed the size of the donkey bones in Cui’s tomb, they found that they were too small to have been good pack animals. Computerized tomography scans of the leg bones revealed patterns of stress similar to an animal that ran and turned frequently, rather than one that slowly trudged in a single direction. Taken together, the evidence suggests Cui played polo astride a donkey, the researchers report today in Antiquity. The noblewoman’s donkeys may have been ritually sacrificed when she died to allow Cui to continue to play in the afterlife.

“There’s no smoking gun … [but] there’s really no other explanation that makes sense,” Marshall says, adding that the finding suggests Tang dynasty donkeys were held in higher regard than believed.

Read the full study published in Antiquity here.

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Neanderthal surf and turf

Thursday, March 26th, 2020

A new study has found that contrary to popular belief, Neanderthals loved them some sea meats. Remains of marine foods are lacking at Neanderthal sites in Europe, whereas the anatomically modern humans living in Africa at the same time left behind extensive evidence of regular consumption of aquatic foods. Because marine foods are very high in Omega-3 fatty acids that aid in the brain development, this dietary disparity was thought to have played a role in how advanced cognitive skills grew among humans of modern anatomy and not in other archaic human species.

However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the aphorism goes, and a great deal of coastal Europe was churned up in the last Ice Age by the growth and movement of icecaps and the rise of sea levels after their thaw.  Gruta da Figueira Brava, a seaside cave 20 miles south of Lisbon, Portugal, on the other hand, was uniquely protected from erosion and submersion because of its position on a steep shelf off the Arrábida mountain range.

Today the cave has three entrances in a cliff overlooking the water, but during the Last Interglacial period when Neanderthals lived there about 86,000 to 106,000 years ago, it was just over a mile from the sea. A team of international researchers led by João Zilhão from the University of Barcelona excavated the cave shelter and found clear evidence that the Neanderthal population regularly and thoroughly exploited marine animal resources.

They ate crabs — brown and spider — an assortment of mollusks — limpets, mussels, clams — fish — sharks, eels, sea bream — seabirds — cormorants, egrets, gannets, auk — waterfowl — loons, mallards, geese — and marine mammals — dolphins and seals. The density of the remains is comparable to that found at African Middle Stone Age and Last Interglacial sites in Africa. It even exceeds the latter in terms of crab and fish.

Their gastronomic enjoyment of aquatic species was not exclusive. They also hunted hoofed game — deer, goats, horses, aurochs — and other small land animals like tortoises. Plants — olives, figs — were on the menu as well. They foraged extensively, storing mature pinecones to eat the nuts during the winter.

Figueira Brava provides the first record of significant marine resource consumption among Europe’s Neandertals. Taphonomic and site-preservation biases explain why this kind of record has not been previously found in Europe on the scale seen among coeval African populations. Consistent with rapidly accumulating evidence that Neandertals possessed a fully symbolic material culture, the subsistence evidence reported here further questions the behavioral gap once thought to separate them from modern humans.

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Care for a little ginger beer with your lead?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

This February, 600 Victorian stoneware beer bottles were found under an old cellar staircase in Leeds. They had been carefully stacked under the steps of what was once the Scarborough Castle Inn in the late 19th century. In 1931, the site of the former inn was acquired by the Tetley company and became part of Tetley’s Brewery, an Art Deco factory that is now being excavated in advance of for redevelopment.

The excavation is being undertaken to examine an area spanning the former line of Hunslet Lane on the southern approach to during the medieval and later periods.

Along with the road, there are the remains of the Scarborough Castle Inn, properties along the former South Terrace and workers housing have been targeted for excavation.

This excavation is providing archaeologists with a rare chance to explore the social development of this part of Leeds from the late medieval period through to modern day.

David Williams, at Archaeological Services WYAS, said: “This excavation is giving us a great opportunity to uncover a part of Georgian and Victorian Leeds. The results so far are giving a real insight to the daily lives of the former residents of Leeds during this period.”

Rather perilous daily lives, as it turns out. The bottles appeared to be were mostly ginger beer. Labels indicated most of the bottles were produced by J. E. Richardson of Leeds, although several different local breweries were represented.

NB: The original ginger beer made in England in the mid-18th century, it was not the sweet carbonated soft drink it is today. It was a fermented beverage with the punch of beer but the taste of ginger. Water, ginger, sugar and a combination yeast and bacteria starter culture known as the ginger beer plant (GBP), were fermented to create a bubbly, spicy alcoholic drink. Ginger beer could pack a goodly wallop getting up to 11% alcohol.

Stoneware bottles like the ones in the Leeds find were key to the success of ginger beer as a popular and commercially viable export product. England produced stoneware bottles of such high quality that they could be shipped without catastrophic breakage. Ginger beer got even more popular after 1835 when an improved stoneware glazing process was invented. The bottles, corked and wired like champagne today, lasted indefinitely, the beer inside preserved by the alcohol and natural carbonation.

Some of the Leeds bottles had their corks intact and liquid still sloshing around inside. Two of the bottles that contained liquid were sent to West Yorkshire Joint Services for testing.  The results were surprising.  The alcohol content was a modest 3%. The lead content was an impressive .13 mg/l, making this weak beer but strong poison. According to the World Health Organization, the safeish lead concentration in water is .01 mg/l (it’s zero for children), but really there is no safety to be found in lead ingestion because it accumulates in the body over time and irreversibly damages the nervous system.

The likely source of the contaminated ginger beer was lead water pipes. The water was contaminated before it even made contact with the other ingredients that would make it ginger beer, so the high lead level was present in the drink from day one.

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New date for dugout canoe

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

A dugout canoe pulled from Squam Lake in central New Hampshire in 1939 is significantly older than previously believed, dating to the mid-16th century.

It was discovered by James King and Harold Smith of Tilton when they were fishing on Squam Lake in 1936. It was under 14 feet of water, so they didn’t recover it right away. They did keep an eye on it, and in August 1939, their friend Horace Wheaton was able to raise it to the surface. It took him 15 dives to remove the stones pinning the canoe to the lakebed and raise it to the surface. The canoe was 14 feet long, three feet wide and 15 inches deep, and there was a paddle inside too, but it had disintegrated when Wheaton touched it. The three men put the canoe on display in a garage in Tilton and it got a lot of visitors for a couple of weeks.

When it first raised from the lake, the assumption was that it was an old Indian canoe, but by early September a new origin story had taken hold. Locals claimed it has been carved in the second half of the 19th century by one Bartlett Smith of Holderness. He felled a large tree and dug it out to use on the lake as a personal watercraft. Alas, he had overestimated his canoe-making skills and on Smith’s first attempt to cross the lake from Holderness, the vessel sank. He abandoned it on the lake floor and there it remained until 1939.

There was some desultory talk about preserving the canoe as a sort of quaint artifact of the quaint olden times, but ultimately nobody in New Hampshire cared to take on the boat, so eventually it wound up in the Shelburne Museum in Vermont whose experts correctly identified it as a Native American artifact.

In 2019, the canoe returned to New Hampshire, now in the care of the Holderness Historical Society. Again it was subject of local interest, increasing visits to the historical society tenfold. They decided to undergo a new analysis to date the canoe and help determine its real history.

The highly complex process for dating the canoe began with the taking of a small sample of the wood and exposing it to a series of stress tests: freeze-drying it to minus-107 degrees Celsius to remove all moisture, then heating it to more than 110 degrees Celsius to remove any trace of iron and calcium carbonates.

Using sterilized instruments, the sample was placed inside a quartz tube with cupric oxide and silver added before it was “hydrogen flame-sealed” under vacuum and combusted at 820 degrees.

The sample was then radiocarbon dated to the mid-17th century, a good hundred years before English settlers discovered Squam Lake.  When Samuel Lane surveyed its shores in 1751, he saw evidence of settlement and agriculture by the Penacook-Abenaki People of the Algonquin Federation. Artifacts connected to the Cowasuck Band have been unearthed around the lake and river.

Experts theorize that, with no saw or metal tool marks evident, and an upturned stern with bow and sides of varying thickness, that the Holderness canoe is undoubtedly made by Native Americans during the “Early Contact Period.”

By the mid-1600s the more maneuverable birch bark canoe had replaced the cumbersome dugout, so this Squam Lake artifact most likely had been abandoned.

The canoe is scheduled to go on display June to September at the Holderness Historical Society Museum. Fingers crossed.

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Tour the Winchester Mystery House

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

The famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is closed until at least April 7th, but the museum has compiled a comprehensive 41-minute video tour for our remote enjoyment.

The manchester was built by Sarah Winchester, widow of rifle tycoon William Wirt Winchester. When he died in 1881, his wife inherited a huge fortune in cash and stock, making her worth a half billion dollars in today’s money and one of the richest women in the world. Legend has it — and it is very much legendary as Sarah left no correspondence or journals on the subject, nor did any family, friends or loyal employees ever volunteer an explanation — that, devastated by the loss of her husband and daughter, she sought the advice of a Boston medium named Adam Coons. After a séance, he told her that she was haunted by the thousands of Civil War soldiers and Indians who had been killed by Winchester firearms, and that the only way to appease the vengeful spirits was to use the Winchester money she’d inherited to build them a house. Another origin story claims that a medium told her she would die as soon as the house was finished, so she saw to it that construction continued until her last breath. There is zero evidence that any of this ever happened.

In 1884, she moved to California and bought a 161-acre farm in Santa Clara Valley from Dr. Robert Caldwell. There was a modest eight room farmhouse already on the property, but Sarah’s vision was far vaster. For 38 years, she had her crew of carpenters and masons work in shifts so construction continued 24-7, 365 days a year. (Again, this is the legend; somebody probably took some time off now and again.) built and built, creating a mansion with hundreds of rooms, rooms-within-rooms, unfinished rooms, mazes of corridors, dead ends, staircases that are short cuts from one part of the house to the other, staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open up to walls, doors that open to the outside two stories up, small doors, big doors, cupolas, turrets, windows of every shape and size, skylights in floors, prime numbers, especially 13, everywhere. There was even a seven story tower at one point, but it was destroyed in the 1906 Frisco quake.

When she died on September 5th, 1922, work immediately stopped. There are still nails half-hammered in to the walls. The rich reclusive widow and her labyrinthine mansion were already famous by then. The villa was known as the Spirit House and rumors abounded of nightly séances, copious hauntings and “evil spirits” confounded by Sarah Winchester’s architectural follies.

She left her estate to the charities she supported, dedicated employees and family. The furnishings of the house were sold and the mansion itself opened to tours in 1923. Millions of visitors have trod its eccentric floors in the century since then. You can now join them virtually from the comfort of your home, maybe chasing the tour with a viewing of the horror thriller Winchester starring Helen Mirren now showing on Showtime and streaming on Hulu.

You can also buy discounted ticket vouchers for a visit to the mansion that will be valid through May 2021. The vouchers cost $26, $13 off the regular ticket price. The income from the voucher sales will help keep the lights on and food on the table for the museum’s employees while the Winchester House is closed.

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Coin hoard found under Slovakian church floor

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

A hoard of 500 coins from the early 18th century has been discovered under the floor of a church in the town Obišovce, near Košice, eastern Slovakia. The trove of coins had been stashed in a ceramic mug covered with a slab or stone.

It was found in the foundations of the Renaissance church which was demolished in the 19th century and the current church built over it. The foundations were discovered when the floor of the church was removed. Archaeologists explored the structural remains and came across the hoard that had been stashed under the original stone floor near the western entrance.

Most of the coins are salary plates issued by the many mines in what was then Upper Hungary. Copper, iron, silver and gems had been mined in the east Slovakian fields since the 9th century arrival of the Hungarian tribes. In the 15th century, the five main mining towns including Košice, had united to promote their interests. They had mints that produced coinage and salary plates with which the miners were paid. The hoard also includes silver coins, believed to have been wrapped separately in a linen textile, and a few Polish coins. From the dates on the coins, the earliest the hoard could have been buried was 1702.

When the coins were cached, Slovakia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary ruled by the Catholic Habsburgs and under regular attack by the Ottoman Empire. In the 17th century, Protestant Magyar nobles fleeing Turkish incursions moved to Upper Hungary, modern-day Slovakia, temporarily tipping the demographics of the region to majority Protestant. They allied with Transylvanian prince István Thököly in the failed Magnate conspiracy to overthrow Leopold I in 1670, and again with his son Imre Thököly in his anti-Habsburg rebellion in 1678.

Imre, allied with the Ottoman sultan, took control of territories in eastern and central Hungary, creating the short-lived Principality of Upper Hungary which largely conforms to the boundaries of Slovakia. By 1685 he had managed to be defeated in battle by the Habsburgs and to piss off the Turks so the putative principality was no more. The Great Turkish War between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League ended in 1699 with the Habsburgs in control of Hungary.

Thököly’s peasant army kept fighting against the Habsburgs, however, and in 1703, Hungarian prince Francis II Rákóczi led them in an uprising against the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, then engaged in the War of Spanish Succession. The Rákóczi rebellion lasted until their surrender in 1711.

With the region mired in so much religious and political turmoil in the late 17th and early 18th century, hoarding and hiding coins doubtless seemed prudent.

Preservationists say it is probable that the priest from the local church and parish collected the money and hid it under the floor in times of unrest. It is probable that when he left, he omitted to say anything about the money under the floor and it was forgotten about.

The historic sources state that after the Thӧkӧly uprising was over, sometime between 1685 and 1687, a Catholic priest returned to Kysak parish. Obišovce at that time belonged to this parish. The priest was a Pole, he was blind in one eye and sometime in the 1690’s he went blind completely. The church was under the administration of the Catholic church until 1705 when rebels plundered it and it was left as a ruin for three years. The Polish priest was expelled and he returned to Poland.

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This 12th c. Norwegian church tapestry is unique

Saturday, March 21st, 2020

On topic news is a little thin at the moment, so I shall fill the lull with the Høylandet tapestry, a Norwegian embroidered church tapestry from the late 1100s that is the only known surviving tapestry of its kind.

We know from contemporary sources that medieval churches in Norway were draped with textiles and tapestries. This was not only a decorative and devotional statement; swathing the interior of a church in textiles helped insulate the frigid building in the long winters. The church tapestries were made of wool and plant and mineral dyes were susceptible to damage, fading and decay. Even though they were extremely popular in the Middle Ages, the ones that did manage to survive the elements were systematically destroyed and recycled after the Reformation. Other than the Høylandet tapestry, only small fragments of embroidery have been found in archaeological explorations of medieval churches.

It was stitched by a group of women in the village of Høylandet in central Norway’s Trøndelag County for their parish church. This was an agricultural area, and embroidery was a high-status activity performed by women who could afford to spend untold hours putting decorative stitching on cloth instead of working with their families to bring in a harvest. First they wove a red background, then sketched Biblical scenes on it. Finally they embroidered fully realized characters onto the textile. They used yarns in a variety of bright colors — blue, green, ochre, yellow, red — to stitch the Biblical scenes. White linen thread was used for the outlines. Today the vivid colors have faded to brown shades, and coupled with the white outline, it almost has a black-figure pottery vibe.

The tapestry is no longer complete. It is 44 cm (17.3 inches) high, but however long it was originally, only 210 cm (6’11”) of that length is extant. What does remain is embroidered with three scenes: Mary sitting on a throne as Queen of Heaven with the Christ child; the Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh; the kings being warned in a dream not to return to Herod and report on the birth of Jesus.

It’s unknown how the tapestry made it through the Reformation. At some point it was stashed in the loft of the Høylandet Church where it was rediscovered in the 1800s. By happy accident, the church attic proved to be a fine conservation climate, keeping the large section of tapestry in excellent condition.

It is now under the care of experts at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum. The iconography and technique of the tapestry lends unique insight to the iconography and craft of sacred art in medieval Norway, which is why art history PhD candidate Ingrid Lunnan Nødseth is writing her dissertation on the tapestry.

“In the Høylandet tapestry we find great pattern and technique variations. For example, the horse is filled with nine different embroidery patterns. It’s embroidered with a so-called fill stitch, a technique only found in Scandinavia. It’s a sign that the work belongs to a Nordic context,” says Nødseth.

The Wise Men are also depicted differently on this tapestry than we typically see the Wise Men depicted in Western art.

In the Middle Ages, the men were portrayed as three holy kings. In the Høylandet tapestry, they are wearing short pants and robes draped over their shoulders; two of them have small crowns and one has a Phrygian hat. Their clothing shows that they have come from the East.

The textures and patterns embroidered on their clothing (and the horse’s skin!) are spectacular. 

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