15th c. axes from largest medieval battle found in Poland

Two 15th century battle axes have been discovered at the site of the Battle of Grunwald in northern Poland. The axes are similar but not identical. One has a longer shaft of a closed type, meaning there’s a dedicated compartment for the handle. The other has a shorter open shaft.

Volunteers have come from all over Europe to survey the battlefield site every year for the past seven years. This year 70 volunteer metal detectorists explored the fields and marshes under the supervision of archaeologists. One of them, Aleksander Miedwiedew, discovered the axe heads in marshy ground about 30 inches below the surface. The waterlogged soil helped protect the axes from corrosion, leaving them in exceptional condition, complete with the original rivets that fastened the axes to their wooden handles.

According to Dr. Szymon Dreja, director of the Museum of the Battle of Grunwald, the discovery of the battle axes are an archaeological sensation.

“In seven years of our archaeological research we have never had such an exciting, important and well-preserved find,” he stressed.

The Battle of Grunwald took place on July 15th, 1410, during the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War. Allied Polish and Lithuanian forces squared off against the German Teutonic Knights in massive forces, more than 50,000 fighters all told, making it one of the biggest battles in medieval Europe, if not the biggest. The Polish-Lithuanian side was victorious and delivered so sound a spanking that almost all of the Teutonic leadership either died on the field or was taken as prisoner of war. This was the turning point not just for the war, but for the Teutonic Order itself which never recovered militarily from the defeat and whose economic power over its monastic state was obliterated by reparations after the war.

This year’s archaeological survey of the battlefield also unearthed several dozen other weapon parts, most of them spear heads.

The museum is not revealing the precise location of the find because they believe that other artefacts are still lying in the ground. For this reason, they are planning more archaeological excavations later this year.

The mystery still waiting to be discovered is the location of the mass grave of knights who died in one of the greatest battles of medieval Europe.

German library acquires 400-year-old yearbook with only the coolest signatures

The Herzog August Bibliothek library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, has acquired a 400-year-old illustrated album signed by the crowned heads of Europe for €2.8 million (about $3.1 million). It’s a purchase that has been on the library’s wish list since 1648. That first offer was declined. Three hundred and seventy-two years later, the second offer was accepted.

The “Album Amicorum” (friendship book), aka the “Große Stammbuch,” was put together by Augsburg art dealer and diplomat Philipp Hainhofer over 50 years of travels through the courts of Europe. As he brokered the sale of luxury goods to his aristocratic clientele between 1596 and 1647, he would ask them sign his friendship book. Contributions went far beyond autographs, Hainhofer commissioned elaborate illuminations to go with the signatures and inscriptions. Well-known artists, mostly from his hometown in Augsburg, filled the pages with rich decoration, the higher the status of the signatory, the more elaborate the illustration.

Even in its own time it was famous for the quality of its illustrations and the incredible array of contributors. Signatories include Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, another HRE Matthias, Christian IV of Denmark and Norway, Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria, Frederick V, Elector Palatine and his wife Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James VI of Scotland/James I of England, and grandmother of the first Hanoverian king of Britain, George I.

Friendship books were a popular trend starting in the 16th century. People would use them to record information about their friends and families, or even people they’d just met once but who made a strong impression. Students at Wittenberg University in the 1530s used them as yearbooks, passing them around to get signatures, crests, dedications, poems from each other and their professors. The more renown the scholars, the more cachet attached to the book. The practice continued in the halls of German academia into the early 19th century.

Hainhofer started his friendship book when he was a college student. When his business put him in contact with people of high rank, he asked them to sign. Those clients provided a conduit to people of even higher rank, and as the book’s contributors represented the heights of court society, the book itself gave Hainhofer access to rarified circles which gave him invaluable aid in his cultural and diplomatic endeavors.

After Hainhofer’s death in 1647, August the Younger of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, a long-time friend and correspondent of Philipp Hainhofer’s and one of the signatories of the book, tried to buy it from the son and heir for the library August had founded in Wolfenbüttel. That was the last documented trace of the masterpiece until it reemerged at an auction in New York in 2006. Unbeknownst to researchers at the time, it turns out to have been sold in London in 1931 and then again in the 1940s to bibliophile Cornelius Hauck in Cincinnati.

At the 2006 auction, it was acquired by a British private collector and went back across the ocean. This year that collector contacted Sotheby’s to sell Das Große Stammbuch. The auction house’s experts traced its history and discovered its connection to the Herzog August Bibliothek. Sotheby’s contacted the library which was thrilled to repatriate this unique record of Early Modern European art, politics, trade and diplomacy. The book will be researched thoroughly for the first time in its long life, digitized and made freely available to the public.

Chalice with Christian symbols found at Vindolanda

Archaeologists have discovered a unique Christian artifact at the Roman fort of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall. It’s a fragmentary lead chalice etched with Christian symbols, the only chalice from this period ever found in Britain.

The remains of the chalice were discovered in the collapsed walls of a building identified as a 5th/6th century Christian church. It was found in 14 pieces, all in poor condition because it was close to the surface and not buried in the waterlogged anaerobic soil that has preserved thousands of leather shoes and the only Roman wooden toilet seat ever discovered.

Every fragment was densely inscribed with Christian symbols on both inner and outer surfaces. They seem to be random in arrangement and meaning, like doodles.

The marks appear to have been added, both to the outside and the inside of this cup, by the same hand or artist and although they are now difficult to see with the naked eye, with the aid of specialist photography, the symbols have been carefully recorded and work has started on a new journey of discovery to unlock their meanings. The etchings include some well-known symbols from the early church including ships, crosses and chi-rho, fish, a whale, a happy bishop, angels, members of a congregation, letters in Latin, Greek and potentially Ogam.

The academic analysis of the artefact is ongoing with the post-Roman specialist Dr David Petts from Durham University taking the lead on the research and commented: “This is a really exciting find from a poorly understood period in the history of Britain. Its apparent connections with the early Christian church are incredibly important, and this curious vessel is unique in a British context. It is clear that further work on this discovery will tell us much about the development of early Christianity in beginning of the medieval period.”

The chalice fragments are featured in a new exhibition dedicated to Vindolanda’s Christian history. The show opens on Monday, August 31st.

Neolithic pottery face found in Poland

The remains of a ceramic vessel with a human face and horns have been discovered at a Neolithic site in the village of Biskupice near Wieliczka, southern Poland. It was unearthed inside a dwelling in a settlement of the Linear Pottery culture that dates back 7,000 years.

The Linear Pottery peoples originated in the Danube area and followed the Vistula into what is today Poland. They were some of the first farmers on Polish soil. Archaeologists have known there was a Neolithic settlement in Biskupice for decades, but excavations only began recently due to planned construction in the area. The excavation has expanded in scope and has revealed the remains of rectangular longhouses that are characteristic of Linear Pottery culture settlements from this period.

Archaeologists found a series of oblong pits on both sides of one of the longhouses. They contained pottery and flint remains, including a section of a bowl decorated with a human face. On the forehead are two bumps that look like horns. The fragment is four inches wide, but the curvature is broad so the intact bowl would have been significantly larger. Vessels with similar ornamentation have been found in Slovakia and Hungary, but they didn’t have any horns. This is the first example ever discovered in Poland.

So far more than 3,000 artifacts have been discovered in the oval pits at the site. Besides the face bowl, objects include stone cores used to shape flint tools, scrape leather, cut wood and butcher bones. There are also obsidian cores which must have been imported as the black volcanic glass is not native to Poland.

This year’s excavations are over, but will hopefully resume next year. Meanwhile, researchers will study the objects recovered and their contexts. Botanists will study the plant remains found next to the artifacts which are extremely important as Neolithic plant matter is rarely collected and can shed unique light on the dawn of agriculture.

Lefty Viking sword found in grave in Norway

Archaeologists have discovered a Viking grave in Vinjeøra, Norway, containing a full complement of weaponry: an axe, a spearhead, a shield and a sword. It dates to the 9th or 10th century. The farm being excavated was known to have a burial mound and other Viking graves, so an archaeological team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum surveyed it in connection with the expansion of the E39 highway.

The discovery of the warrior’s grave was not entirely unexpected, therefore. He was buried in a ring ditch surrounding one of the burial mounds, a location of honor due it its proximity to the important person, likely an ancestor, interred in the mound. The graves of another three warriors were also found in the ring ditch, but this one had an unusual feature: the sword was buried on the deceased’s left side.

The sword was normally placed on the right side of the body in weapon graves like this. This custom is actually a little strange, because as a warrior you want to fasten your sword on your left side to be able to pull it out with your right hand.

“Why the swords are almost always placed on the right side is a bit mysterious. One theory is that the underworlds you go to after death are the mirror image of the upper world,” says [NTNU archaeologist Raymond] Sauvage.

But what does it mean when the sword is on the left side – which you would initially think was the logical side?

“Maybe he was left-handed, and they took that into account for the afterlife? It’s hard to say,” says Sauvage

One more grave discovered in the same ring ditch contained an intriguing surprise. The deceased was cremated, but the nature of the grave goods — a brooch, beads, a pair of scissors — indicate she was a woman. What was unusual about this burial is the weight of the bone ash. It totals about two kilos (4.4 pounds), which is the average amount generated by a cremated human body. Most Viking graves contain far fewer cinerary remains, about 250 grams (half a pound). All of her was buried, or at least most of her as there were a few bird bones in the mix.