Archive for August, 2020

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

Monday, August 31st, 2020

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.

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

Sunday, August 30th, 2020

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.

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Chalice with Christian symbols found at Vindolanda

Saturday, August 29th, 2020

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.

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Neolithic pottery face found in Poland

Friday, August 28th, 2020

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.

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Lefty Viking sword found in grave in Norway

Thursday, August 27th, 2020

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.

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Remains of 1,500 people found in Osaka graveyard

Wednesday, August 26th, 2020

Panoramic view of the graveyard from the north. Photo courtesy Osaka City Cultural Properties Association.The remains of more than 1,500 individuals from the 19th century have been discovered in a historic burial ground in Osaka. This is the greatest number of burials ever discovered in one place in the city.

The city has been conducting excavations at the site since 1991. The most recent archaeological survey focused on the eastern end of the burial ground due to a planned expansion of Osaka Station. The site was once known as Umeda Haka (Umeda Grave) and was one of seven major cemeteries in the city of Osaka. It was active from the Edo (1603-1868) to the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Archaeologists unearthed a stone wall noted on an 1890 map that forms the east boundary of the graveyard and more of the north-south wall that was first encountered in the 2016-2017 dig. To the north of the stone wall were hundreds of simple burials. The deceased were interred in shallow pits and covered with about three feet of soil. Multiple bodies were layered on top of each other. These are likely victims of an epidemic who had to be buried quickly. Lesions have been found on their extremities which might be indicative of what killed them. Syphilis is one possibility, as it was known to be widespread in urban centers during the late Edo, early Meiji period.

In the southern section of the cemetery, the team unearthed a large rectangular building with a stone foundation. The cornerstone was set in a trench that was backfilled with bone ash soil. Its purpose is unclear, but archaeologists think it may have been an ossuary. On the north and south sides of the building were a dense grouping of casket burials, including enclosed wooden caskets and circular open containers like barrels. Artifacts found inside the graves include juzudama (prayer beads, combs, clay dolls and rokusenmon (a set of six coins used to pay passage across the river to the afterlife). The team also unearthed a group of about 350 earthenware urns in a depository of bone ash from cremations.

Researchers believe this cemetery was used by the commoners who lived outside the Osaka Castle compound. The average age of death was around 30 years old, and the remains of many children have been found there. Archaeologists hope that analysis of the bones and grave goods will shed new light on the lives of the non-aristocratic people of Osaka who have been sorely neglected in historical records.

The remains and artifacts excavated are now being documented and analyzed. Results of the survey are expected to be published next year.

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Indian monkeys found in Egyptian pet cemetery

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020

Remains of monkey excavated from Berenike pet cemetery, 1st-2nd century A.D. Photo by Marta Osypińska.A unique pet cemetery was discovered in 2011 in the ancient city of Berenike on the Red Sea coast. It was found during an excavation of a garbage dump on the outskirts of Berenike’s early Roman port, but the animals weren’t just tossed in the trash. They were lovingly buried between the last quarter of the 1st and the first half of the 2nd century A.D. when the site was an undeveloped area between the bustling Roman port and the Ptolemaic-era military fort (3rd century B.C.).

As one might expect in Egypt, most of the animals found — 86 complete skeletons and additional bones from disturbed burials — were cats. Dogs came a distant second in popularity, with the remains of nine individuals found. Last but not least, there were four monkeys. Two of the cats were buried with an ostrich eggshell bead. Three other cats and one of the monkeys were buried wearing iron collars. Three of the cat burials were double burials with one adult and one juvenile feline. None of the complete skeletons showed signs of deliberate killing or of mummification. One dog, a sturdy molosser type likely imported from elsewhere in the empire, had fish and goat meat in his stomach and was carefully wrapped in a basket and covered with pottery fragments. These were beloved house pets, not cult offerings killed for religious purposes or random strays or working animals casually discarded after death.

When they were first unearthed, the monkeys were believed to be an olive baboon and three grivets, both species native to Africa, but they were juveniles when they died and conclusive identification of their species from the bones was elusive. Comparative analysis of the bones and examination with 3D scanners has now revealed that the pet monkeys were in fact imported from India.

Zooarchaeologist Dr. Marta Osypińska from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poznań said: “This is a unique find. Until now, no one has found Indian monkeys at archaeological sites in Africa.

“Interestingly, even ancient written sources don”t mention this practice.” […]

Dr. Osypińska said: “We knew that spices, fabrics and other commodities were imported from India. It turns out that monkeys were also imported.”

In addition to rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta), the scientists also found the remains of the smaller bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata) also native to India.

Their owners must have spent a pretty penny acquiring monkeys that had to travel by ship across the Indian Ocean, but it seems like the stress of the voyage, dietary changes and the shock of the new environment took a fatal toll on the poor creatures. They were laid to rest lovingly, resting on their sides with their paws near their heads like children. One was covered with a blanket. Another had large shells near its head.

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Bronze Age Britons shaved with a mini labrys

Monday, August 24th, 2020

The Havering Hoard, a cache of 453 Bronze Age objects dating to between 900 and 800 B.C. discovered in east London in 2018, was supposed to go on display for the first time at the Museum of London Docklands on April 3rd. Then COVID did its thing and this exhibition, like every other one in every museum in the country, was put on ice. The thaw is nigh, however, and Havering Hoard: A Bronze Age Mystery is now scheduled to open on September 11th and run through April 18th, 2021. All 435 objects in the hoard will be on display in the exhibition.

Britain’s third largest Bronze Age hoard contains a remarkably variety of objects, including axe heads, chisels, sickles, spearheads, blades, ingots, metalworking tools and two extremely rare terret rings (cart fittings to hold a horse’s reins), the first ones ever discovered in Britain. Among these stand-out objects is a piece that didn’t make any of the stories when the discovery was announced in 2019 or during promotions for the museum exhibition earlier this year. It is a razor, and a very marked upgrade from the shell and stone blades that preceded it. It is double-headed making it look like a miniature version of a labrys, the Minoan double axe, eponym of the labyrinth built by Daedalus at the behest of King Minos for the palace of Knossos on Crete.

Archaeologists also suggest the razor was an important part of Bronze Age male identity – as much as riding implements and weapons – and was used not only in revealing the face and sculpting beards and moustaches but also in body modification.

Well, it is a sharp blade so the razor is technically a weapon, even if it was intended solely for use in grooming. A copper alloy tweezer was found with the double-headed razor, and it’s about the same size.

I’m guessing the razor blade was mounted on an organic handle that has now rotted away because that tiny axelet would be hard to wield without one.

To maintain safe distancing, all entry tickets to the museum are time and must be booked in advance. Book your free ticket here.

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Goths were as adept at fine metalwork as Romans

Sunday, August 23rd, 2020

A recent study of jewelry and other artifacts manufactured by the Goths in what is now Poland has found metal work of such high quality that it is comparable to Roman objects from that period. Archaeologist Dr. Magdalena Natuniewicz-Sekuła from the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw studied a large group of metal objects unearthed from an ancient cemetery in the village of Weklice, northern Poland. More than 3,500 artifacts have been discovered in 600 burials of East Germanic Goth and Gepid people dating from the 1st through 4th century A.D.

Analysis of a selection of these grave goods revealed that the silver was of very high purity, exceeding modern standards for jewelry. Sterling silver ornaments today contain 92.5% silver (that’s what the 925 fineness designation means). The pieces from the Weklice examined by Natuniewicz-Sekuła are much higher in silver content, reaching 970-990. The gold objects analyzed were equally high in gold content.

Pure silver and gold are very malleable and hard to manipulate, which is why it’s necessary to add other metals to make an alloy that can take complex designs. The Weklice objects employed specialized, difficult techniques including fire gilding, granulation and filigree. Alloys of such high purity would never be used to create objects with these techniques today, not because it’s impossible but because it’s so difficult and time-consuming that it would be cost-prohibitive.

No full sets of the equipment necessary to refine the metals used have ever been found, leading archaeologists to speculate that bullion bars were brought to the area from the Roman Empire, despite a strict ban.

If bullion was unavailable to the metalsmiths, it is also possible that they refined the silver and other metals from coins and other items.

Dr Natuniewicz-Sekuła said: “We cannot rule out that the Goths knew the methods of refining and cupellation (the separation of noble metals from base ones under high temperature).

“In this way, they may have been able to ‘purify’ the silver obtained from coins, but this is only a guess.”

Coin silver was fairly low in purity, averaging around 800-850, so if that was their source they had to be very adept indeed at refining the precious metal.

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Marine dino found inside stomach of other marine dino

Saturday, August 22nd, 2020

Paleontologists have discovered the fossilized remains of one dinosaur inside the stomach of another one. The predator was an example of an ichthyosaur (Guizhouichthyosaurus), a marine reptile about 16 feet long. Its prey was a thalattosaur (Xinpusaurus xingyiensis) about 13 feet long. This is the first direct evidence of megapredation, one large animal devouring another of human size or larger. It’s also the first direct evidence of a Triassic marine reptile eating another marine reptile.

The nearly complete skeleton of the ichthyosaur was discovered in 2010 at the Ladinian (Middle Triassic) Zhuganpo Member of the Falang Formation in Xingyi, Guizhou, southwestern China, a former quarry and active paleontological site which is now part of the Xingyi National Geopark Museum. The ichthyosaur and its stomach full of thalattosaur is on display at the entrance to the museum.

Because stomach contents are rarely found in marine fossils, researchers rely on tooth and jaw shapes to learn what prehistoric species may have eaten. While prehistoric apex predators are typically thought to have large teeth with sharp cutting edges, some modern predatory species like crocodiles use blunt teeth to consume large prey items with grasping force instead of cutting. Ichthyosaurs share these blunter teeth, but with no direct evidence of large prey consumption in these prehistoric marine reptiles, scientists believed that they fed on small prey like cephalopods.

However, the discovery of the giant thalattosaur in the stomach of the ichthyosaur found by Motani, Da-Yong Jiang, a paleontologist at Peking University in China, and their team suggests that this was not the case. “Now, we can seriously consider that they were eating big animals, even when they had grasping teeth,” says Motani. “It’s been suggested before that maybe a cutting edge was not crucial, and our discovery really supports that. It’s pretty clear that this animal could process this large food item using blunt teeth.”

The articulated remains of the thalattosaur’s mid-section didn’t have time to be digested by the ichthyosaur’s stomach acids, which suggests the predator died shortly after eating his last meal. There ichthyosaur’s neck appears to have been broken. There is no conclusive evidence of whether that last meal was killed or scavenged, but partial remains of the thalattosaur’s legs, which would have rotted off first, were still attached to his trunk. His tail, which would have been the last extremity to detach from the body during decomposition, was found 75 feet away from the ichthyosaur fossil. This suggests the tail was ripped off first in an attack from a predator, and then the rest of the body eaten. But the hunted may have taken his revenge on the hunter after all.

“The prey is lighter than the predator but its resistance must have been fierce,” Motani said. “The predator probably damaged its neck to some extent while subduing the prey. Then it took the head and tail of the prey off through jerking and twisting, and swallowed the trunk using inertia and gravity.”

Motani added, “These activities may have expanded the damage of the neck to the point it was fatal. The neck vertebral columns of these ichthyosaurs are quite narrow and once they could not hold the skull in place anymore, the predator could not breathe. Soon, it died not far from the site of the predation, where the detached tail of the prey lay.”

The study has been published in the journal iScience and can be read in its entirety here.

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