Archive for October, 2020

Danish saint king lost his shirt; got his brother’s

Saturday, October 10th, 2020

Precious textiles from the reliquary of St King Canute the Holy preserved in the cathedral of Odense, Denmark, have been found to actually belong to his brother’s reliquary. The two were killed together inside a nearby church in 1086 and were laid to rest in shrines. After centuries of having been moved, hidden, hidden again and displayed the reliquary textiles’ origins became nebulous.

King Canute IV was the second of the five sons of King Sven Estridsen to rule Denmark after their father’s death in 1076. Canute succeeded to the throne in 1080 but only reigned for six years. He was a proponent of a strong centralized monarchy in tandem with a strong centralized church. He forced feudal nobles and peasants alike to provide him with transportation, supplies and protection as he traveled the country extracting tithes and press-ganged labor for the construction of new churches.

He pushed his luck even further in 1085 when he demanded a huge armada and crew for an invasion of England. The Danes left the rendezvous spot before his arrival, blaming the weather, and the bulk of the would-be invasion fleet went home. Canute was furious and imposed insane punitive fines that would have bankrupted everyone. Nobles and peasants rebelled, destroying royal property and forcing the king to flee to Odense.

Canute, together with his younger half-brother Benedikt and 17 housecarls (paid bodyguards), took refuge in the small wooden church of St. Alban’s in Odense. The rebels attacked the church and killed both Benedikt and Canute, plus all 17 of the housecarls. The monks of St. Alban’s buried the bodies of the king and prince in front of the altar where Canute had been slain as he prayed on his knees.

His death was almost immediately seen as a martyrdom, and indeed he would be canonized 14 years after the killing. The bodies, Canute in an oak shrine with columns, Benedikt in an oak shrine with a hipped lid, were moved to a new, large Romanesque church built in Canute’s honor southwest of St. Alban’s.

A hagiography of Canute written by Ælnoth of Canterbury, a monk at the new church dedicated to the saint, in the first quarter of the 12th century described Canute’s bones as being wrapped in silk and placed in a bejeweled reliquary. Even when the church was rebuilt in the late 13th century by a Gothic cathedral, the reliquaries of the brothers were still venerated in the crypt.

Come the Reformation, relics of saints fell most distinctly out of favor, and in 1536, the reliquaries were stripped of precious metals and gems and walled up. They were uncovered again in 1582 when the church was again rebuilt. The large oak reliquaries decorated with metal fittings and crystals were described as lined with silks and the bones wrapped in fine linen and covered with more silk textiles.

The reliquaries were sealed up again, this time in a wall behind the altar. They had been placed vertically, so when they were rediscovered again in 1694, all the bones, silks and linen had tumbled to the bottom of the reliquary shrines. Antiquarians examined the contents, intrigued by the historic textiles, and documented silks in one reliquary with a hipped lid and linen in the reliquary with columns. The shrines were then again immured in a vertical position.

They were removed for good from their cramped vertical quarters only in 1833, given new glass lids and put on display in the church. Inside the hipped roof shrine was red and blue silk textile with eagles and a yellow silk pillow cover with a motif of birds and crosses. The columned reliquary contained just a pillow and fringed linen cloth.

The larger, more important silks from the hipped lid reliquary were sent for conservation to what would become the National Museum in Copenhagen. When they were returned in 1875, they were placed in the reliquary with the columns because that was Canute’s shrine and the most expensive textiles seemed like they should go with the saintly king instead of his brother.

Samples of nine of the textiles taken during conservation in 2008 have been analyzed as part of a new study to determine their age, condition and historical context. The two most splendid of the textiles are a pillow with birds, likely peacocks, alternating with stylized crosses or trees, and a blue and red samite weave with elaborate eagle decoration.

Radiocarbon dating found that the textiles date from the mid-11th century to the mid-12th, in accordance with the date the brothers were enshrined around 1100. Dendrochronoligcal analysis of the wood of the Canute’s shrine with the columns also confirmed the date range, having been harvested approximately 25 years after 1074.

Neither the silk pillow with birds and crosses nor the Eagle Silk could have originated in Denmark or thereabouts.

The Eagle Silk and the pillow with the bird motif. It is the general and most likely assumption that the preserved silks must have been part of the costly gifts that were sent from South Italy to St Canute’s shrine by his widow, Edel. As duchess of Calabria and Apulia Edel had access to high-quality silks from the Byzantine Empire. Perhaps the textiles were brought to Denmark by St Canute’s half-brother, King Erik 1. Ejegod, who visited Italy in order to promote the sanctification of Canute and who is known to have visited Bari in Apulia on this occasion.

The textiles are the largest and best-preserved high-status textiles from the High Middle Ages in Denmark. At the time of Canute’s canonization and enshrinement, silk weaving in Europe was not yet established outside the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire and silk was both a precious and a much-coveted import article.

The argument made in 1875 when the silks from the hipped lid shrine were moved to the column shrine was the best belonged in the king’s shrine, but while these were the best silks found in the reliquaries, they were not the best someone like Erik would have had access to via the Byzantine Empire.

The precondition for the argument that the best silks should belong in the king’s shrine is that all original textiles are preserved. That is clearly not the case. The description of the king’s shrine from 1582 mentions a double yellow silk with yellow silk embroidery as well as a golden piece of textile. These silks seem to have been lost. On the other hand, the description does not mention such characteristic textiles as the Eagle Silk or the pillow with the birds. The most reasonable conclusion is that most of the preserved textiles right from the beginning lay in Benedikt’s shrine where they were also found in 1694–96 and in 1833. The silks are indeed fine and suitable for a saint. But as the somewhat enforced use of the silk for the pillow with the birds indicate, Benedikt’s shrine could not necessarily claim the best silks or the best handicraft. The silks in St Canute’s shrine were probably of even better quality. That might explain why most of the textiles which were found in the shrine in 1582 have disappeared, probably stolen like all the metal fittings on the shrine. The shrine was clearly plundered for all valuables. It is a likely—but unverifiable suggestion—that the shrine with the hipped lid was the shrine which is recorded to have been stripped of its silver and copper fitting in connection with the large confiscations of precious metal in 1536.


One mystery of Viking double burial solved

Friday, October 9th, 2020

DNA has solved one mystery of an enigmatic Viking double burial now in the Roskilde Museum. The 9th century grave was discovered in 1981 in the village of Gerdrup just north of Roskilde, Denmark. Inside were the skeletal remains of a man and woman. They were treated very differently, both in the quantity, quality and significance of the grave goods and in the ways their bodies were put to rest.

The woman was middle aged when she died. Osteological examination of her pelvic bone found evidence that she had given birth during her lifetime. She was found with an iron knife by her side where he belt would have been and a needle case made of bone. Next to her right leg was an iron spearhead more than 14 inches long. Her body was weighted down by large stones. This was the first find where it was conclusively determined that a Viking woman was buried with a weapon.

The man was bout 35-40 years old at time of death. His knees are bent outwards and ankles crossed in a sort of frogman posture that suggests the ankles were probably tied together when he was buried. His head is inclined in a twisted position; his neck was broken, likely by hanging. Buried at his side was a heavily worn iron knife.

The woman must have been someone of great importance in her community to be buried with a lance. It is incongruous that someone of high status would be buried next to a man who appeared to have been hanged and tied up before burial. Archaeologists have hypothesized that she was given a spear as a symbol of Odin who was often depicted with his Dwarf-crafted spear Gungnir. The hanged man by her side could have been a slave who was sacrificed to serve her in death.

Archaeological DNA has discovered that in fact the woman and man were mother and son. This explains why they were buried together, if not the circumstances of their life and diverging manners death. One intriguing possibility is that this was a kernel-of-truth version of a story in one of the Icelandic sagas, that the “spearhead” was in fact the wand of a sorceress who was stoned to death and her son hanged.

Written in the mid-13th century, the Eyrbyggja Saga is an anthology of legends. Two of the chapters tell the tale of Katla and her son Odd, and it’s an entertaining rollercoaster ride of cool names and weirdness, so I’m going to summarize it at length, tldr be damned.

It all started one autumn with an act of horse thievery. Thorbiorn the Thick’s herd of horses had disappeared without a trace, so he sent Odd Katlason to one Cunning-Gils, a soothsayer who was known for his skill at uncovering thefts and other crimes. Cunning-Gils told Odd that the horses were not far from the home pastures, but wouldn’t name names. Thorbiorn and Odd blamed one of his neighbors, Thorarin, who was poor but who recently had acquired a passel of new servants.

Thorbiorn assembled a posse and demanded to ransack Thorarin’s house. Thorarin declined, counter-demanding that a court determine the veracity of the charge before allowing a legal ransacking. A  court of six men were assembled and Thorbiorn presented his case. Thorarin’s mom Geirrid called her son a coward if he took this, so he busted up the court and a violent encounter between the parties ensued.

Here’s where it gets weird. After the bloody fight, Thorarin found a severed hand on the field and recognized it as that of his wife Aud. Mad as badger, Thorarin set out to discover which of Thorbiorn’s men had done the wicked deed. He caught up with the party and overheard Odd Katlason bragging about having done it. Thorarin attacked them and slaughtered almost everyone. Three men got away. Odd was one of them. He wasn’t even wounded, as every blow simply glanced off the brown kirtle his mother Katla had given him.

When Thorarin’s men, led by Arnkel, went to Katla’s house looking for Odd, she masked him with her magic. To them, she seemed to be placidly spinning yarn on her distaff. As they rode off, they began to wonder if she had bewitched them into thinking Odd was a distaff. They returned again, and found the distaff on the bench. Katla was outside coming and playing with a goat. The men searched the house and left empty-handed. This time they grew suspicious that the goat may have been Odd, so, they returned again, searched again and again found nothing but Katla’s hog lying next to the rubbish heap. Yup, that hog was Odd.

This time the disappointed party was met by the formidable Geirrid who insisted on returning with them to deal with Katla herself. Katla knew her spells, while good enough to fool Thorarin’s goons, would be useless against a witch as strong as Geirrid. She hid Odd in a secret compartment under her floor this time.

Geirrid strode in, covered Katla’s head with a sealskin bag and tied it around her neck. She had the men break through the floor where they found Odd. They tied him up and transported both him and his mother to Buland Head where Odd was hanged. As Odd kicked and flailed his last, Arnkel told him it was his evil mother’s fault that he was dying like this. Katla responded that she was the who had started this whole bloody mess by disappearing Thorbiornson’s horses and then cursed Arnkel that he would get worse from being his father’s son than Odd ever had gotten from being her son. They promptly stoned her to death.

So a hanged son and a stoned mother. Well… Kinda… The woman in the Gerdrup grave was pinned under large stones after death, not stoned or pressed or in any other way killed by rocks. Beyond the imagery of it, the link between the burial and the saga is more nonexistent than tenuous based on current information, but it’s still neat enough to get an honorable mention.


Third EID MAR aureus emerges at auction

Thursday, October 8th, 2020

A previously unpublished gold aureus of the most coveted coin in the world, the EID MAR struck by Brutus in 42 B.C. to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar, is coming up for auction. With only two other authenticated examples, this is an incredibly rare coin, a once in many generations opportunity for whoever can afford the astronomical cost that will assuredly blow far past its presale estimate of £500,000 ($644,150). It’s also in incredible condition. Behold!

Previously unpublished EID MAR aureus coming up for auction. Photo courtesy Roman Numismatics.

Almost all of the surviving EID MARs, about 85 or so at most recent count, are silver denarii, a day’s wage for a Roman foot soldier. They are believed to have been struck for distribution to soldiers and officers of Brutus and Cassius’ armies in Greece before their final defeat by Mark Antony’s forces at the Battles of Philippi in October of 42 B.C. The gold coins were not paychecks; they can only have been sparingly handed out to the highest echelon of Brutus’ supporters. To the winner goes the spoils, as they say, and the EID MAR coins were spoils par excellence. Antony had them rounded up and melted down, which is why there are so few in circulation today.

The obverse features a profile portrait of Marcus Junius Brutus identified by the legend BRVT IMP (Brutus Imperator). The inscription on left of the portrait, L PLAET CEST, refers to the moneyer of Brutus’ mobile mint, Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus, who had the coins struck.

It was shamelessly hypocritical of Brutus to put his face on a coin to celebrate his murder of someone accused of wanting absolute rule when one of the charges against Caesar was that he had broken an ancient taboo and allowed his face to be put on coins. It was very much against custom in Republican Rome for living people to be portrayed on coins. There were a couple of coins with his likeness struck in tribute to him in the eastern provinces, which caused much grumbling a few years before the assassination. That grumbling turned to a mighty roar after Caesar was declared dictator for life in January of 44 B.C. Several coins were issued by his moneyers celebrating CAESAR DICT PERPETVO, some with his portrait wearing the laurel wreath alone and others veiled and wreathed, combining his religious role as Pontifex Maximus with his military role as triumphing general.

The reverse of Brutus’ coin bears the symbols celebrating the assassination of Caesar. In the middle is a pileus, the distinctive “liberty cap” given to freedmen on their emancipation day. The conspirators adopted this unmistakable symbol of freedom to mark their act as a tyrannicide, not a murder, but a defense of Republican freedom from a would-be king, just as Marcus Junius Brutus’ ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, had righteously killed Tarquin the Proud, the last Etruscan king of Rome, and founded the Roman Republic. According to Appian’s Civil Wars, the conspirators made this explicit in the immediate wake of the assassination:

The murderers wished to make a speech in the Senate, but as nobody remained there they wrapped their togas around their left arms to serve as shields, and, with swords still reeking with blood, ran, crying out that they had slain a king and tyrant. One of them bore a cap on the end of a spear as a symbol of freedom, and exhorted the people to restore the government of their fathers and recall the memory of the elder Brutus and of those who took the oath together against ancient kings.

The pileus on the reverse of the coin is flanked by two daggers. The two daggers are different — one is longer than the other and they have different pommel designs — are a reference to the two main leaders of the conspiracy, Brutus and Cassius who had fled Rome after the assassination and taken control of the eastern provinces from the Adriatic to Asia. They used the copious wealth of the east to keep 20 legions fed and paid, at least once with an assassination commemorative coin. If there was any doubt at all about the meaning of the daggers and freedman cap (there wasn’t), that was obliterated by the inscription EID MAR, an abbreviation of Eidibus Martiis, ie, the Ides of March, ie March 15th, 44 B.C., the date of the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar.

The EID MAR coin boasting of Caesar’s assassination was instantly famous. The two daggers and pileus appeared again on the reverse of a denarius minted in 67 or 68 A.D. The person who ordered it is unknown — a profile of the goddess Libertas was on the obverse — but is believed to be Galba who was actively plotting to snatch the imperial crown in 67 A.D. and did so after Nero’s suicide in 68 A.D. The inscription reads “LIBERTAS PR” on the obverse and “RESTITVTA” on the reverse, meaning “libertas populi romani restituta,” or “the freedom of the Roman people is restored.” Galba would have used his name on the obverse after he took the throne, so it’s likely this was struck as a propaganda piece to justify Nero’s violent demise before he assumed power.

Brutus’ coin also got a mention in Cassius Dio’s Roman History, written 250 years after they were struck.

Brutus stamped upon the coins which were being minted his own likeness and a cap and two daggers, indicating by this and by the inscription that he and Cassius had liberated the fatherland.

The EID MAR denarius consistently ranks at the top of numismatic wish lists. It is a unique combination of historical significance and rarity and good examples have set record prices for silver coinage at auction. The aureus is a whole other level of desirability, and has been since at least the 18th century when King George III got tricked into buying a contemporary fake. That fake is now at the British Museum, as is a fake denarius.

Also at the British Museum on long-term loan from private collector Michael Winckless is an EID MAR aureus that was pierced at the top around the time of its striking. Only important people got the commemorative assassination aurei, so that means a supporter very high up in the ranks, perhaps even one of the assassins himself, wore the coin as a medallion. (Its authenticity has been questioned in the past, but that was based on an assessment not of the coin itself, but of a plaster cast of it. It is accepted as authentic in the modern scholarship.)

The only other known authentic example is in the extensive numismatic collection of the Deutsche Bundesbank. It is on display at the bank’s Money Museum in Frankfurt. It is a much cleaner, properly centralized strike than the pierced aureus at the British Museum or the Bundesbank’s, and is far less worn. The aureus going up for auction on October 29th is even finer still. It is in near mint condition, with only a few of the dots surrounding the portrait on the obverse side worn down. It has been privately owned for centuries with documented provenance going back to the Swiss Baron Dominique de Chambrier in the 1700s. The auction includes many other coins from the decline of the Republic. Mark Antony, Lepidus and Octavian are all present and accounted for, as is Julius Caesar in the dictator for life coins and some posthumous issues.


Earliest frescoes in Venice found during mosaic restoration

Tuesday, October 6th, 2020

The Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta on the Venetian Lagoon island of Torcello is famed for its spectacular 11th century mosaics, rivalling those in its much larger neighbor, St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. In fact, the original 11th century mosaics in the interior of St. Mark’s were largely lost in a fire that ravaged the city in 1106, while many of Santa Maria’s original mosaics are still extant making them the earliest surviving mosaics in greater Venice.

The central apse mosaic features the Virgin Hodegetria (a Byzantine iconographic motif of Mary pointing to the Christ Child as savior) against a glowing background of gold tiles. Below her are a line of saints. Christ Pantacrator (Christ in Majesty) sits enthroned on the diaconicon apse, while above him the Evangelists hold up a medallion of the Lamb of God. The west wall is covered roof to floor with registers of mosaics. The top register in the gable of the roof is a Crucifixion. Below that a large figure of Christ strides through a scene of the Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell). Below that are four tiers depicting the Last Judgment. The design and materials are of the highest quality. The works were likely made by Byzantine mosaicists.

Conservation and research in the late 1970s found evidence of a major restoration of the church’s apse and west wall after an earthquake in the second half of the 12th century. The figure of Mary in the apse appears to have been heavily restored at this time, but the mosaicists who did the repairs used the same materials and techniques as their predecessors making the restoration basically invisible to the naked eye. It was only identified in 1975 because conservators erected full scaffolding and examined the mosaics literally inch by inch.

Torcello’s history predates the existence of Venice. The small spit of land north of Murano was the first island in the Venetian Lagoon to be inhabited. According to a 10th century chronicle, Torcello was settled in 452 by refugees from Altinum, a town on the mainland shore, fleeing the destruction of their city by Attila the Hun. This account is not supported by the evidence, however. For one thing, Altinum continued to be populated for centuries after Attila and the Lombard invasions a hundred years after him. For another, remains of Roman villas going back to the 2nd century A.D. have been found on Torcello. There is also no archaeological indication of a large population shift in the mid-5th century; rather, the island appears to have been gradually colonized from Roman imperial times onwards.

Its location on a fluvial channel that led through the lagoon to the open sea made it convenient for the small shipping concerns that thrived after the demise of the large imperial ports on the mainland. The little island also proved fertile ground and vineyards and orchards thrived during the late Roman and Byzantine eras. Defensive embankments were built around the island starting in the 7th century to protect it from flooding, drawing even more people and trade.

The first inscription recording human settlement of the Venetian Lagoon dates to that period. It notes the construction of the cathedral on Torcello in 639 by order of Isaac, Exarch of Ravenna, under the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. It was a single aisle structure that was enlarged into a three-aisled church in the 9th century and took its present form three-aisled form with high vaults decorated in mosaics in the 11th century. Significant parts of the 7th century church have survived, making the basilica the oldest standing structure in the Venetian Lagoon.

The island prospered and grew, developing industries that included the production of salt, wool and glass. While the Rivo Alto islet that would become the Rialto/Venice was still a scrappy upstart,  Torcello had a population of 20,000. Venice would come into its own in the 11th century, and its rise paralleled Torcello’s eventual decline. By the 14th century its industry was dead and by the time the Republic of Venice fell to Napoleon in 1797, there were only 300 residents on the island. Today there are 11, guards and guides for Torcello’s cultural patrimony.

When Venice was flooded by record-breaking high tides in November and December 2019, Torcello was hit hard. It is a flat islet, so the salt waters of the lagoon don’t have to rise very high to flood it, and once they have, the waters take longer to recede than they do elsewhere on the lagoon. The basilica’s mosaic stone floors and brick and mortar walls absorb the salt water so it causes damage to the structure far beyond the high water mark.

The American non-profit organization Save Venice, which has been living up to its name since 1971, raising funds to repair hundreds of Venice’s most important sites, had already begun to work on a rescue project for Santa Maria’s walls and mosaics. Conservators had been on site for just a month when the floods struck leaving a huge emergency cleanup to contend with. Save Venice partnered with the Embassy of Italy in Washington, D.C., to launch the Immediate Response Fund which provided emergency funds to Torcello and 22 other sites in Venice damaged by the floods.

Once the water subsided, with the collaboration of the diocese of Venice and the Università Ca’ Foscari, conservators began work on more than 2,400 square feet of Byzantine mosaics inside Santa Maria Assunta. With 1300+ years of earthquakes, floods and just plain salt marsh living, the bricks are subject to crumbling and the mortar is loose. In order to ensure the survival of the church and the mosaics attached to said walls, for every section of the mosaic that is conserved, the interior and exterior brick and stonework have to be stabilized at the same time.

When the team was examining the vault of the diaconicon chapel, they removed a small rectangle of the roof to look down inside and assess the stability of the vault. They saw some red paint and realized they had found frescoes that predated the construction of the high vault and mosaics in the early 11th century.

Two surviving narrative scenes can be distinguished, one on each side wall. With the help of palaeographical evidence from two fragmentary inscriptions, the archaeologist Diego Calaon and his team have dated the murals to the middle of the ninth century. The first wall painting, which survives in an especially damaged state, depicts a scene from the life of the fourth-century bishop St Martin of Tours (the inscription reads ‘[San]c[tu]s Martinus’). The scene from the life of the Virgin Mary (‘[M]ar[ia]’) on the opposite wall is in somewhat better condition. We can get a sense of the style of the master, who painted the face of the Virgin in a rough but expressive manner. Scholars have frequently argued that Venetian artists preferred other mediums to mural painting given the unfavourable climatic conditions. However, the wall paintings at Torcello suggest that the tradition of mural painting appeared early on in the Venetian lagoon.

They also offer a rare glimpse into the artistic development of the lagoon before it was completely dominated by Venice. Extensive archaeological research conducted over the last few decades in Comacchio, Altino, and Torcello has significantly advanced our understanding of the early economic development and the changing dynamics of power in the Adriatic. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Venetian lagoon emerged as an important economic and commercial hub, with Byzantine and Carolingian agents competing for influence. Discussion of Torcello has tended to focus on its Byzantine connections, owing to the supposed foundation of Santa Maria Assunta by a Byzantine exarch and its 11th-century mosaics – but these wall paintings suggest that greater attention is due to Torcello’s connections with the Carolingian hinterland.

The fresco of St. Martin is culturally significant because it is one of the earliest representations of the saint (the earliest is in Ravenna and dates to the 6th century). It’s also a scene not often found in St. Martin iconography. There are two saints together, and since we know one is Martin, the other could be his mentor St. Hilary. It suggests the fresco could have been part of a cycle of scenes from the life of St. Martin.

In the Merovingian and Carolingian era St Martin’s cloak became an important symbol of power, serving as the royal military banner. The wall painting at Torcello might show us new ways to understand how the tendrils of Carolingian influence in the Venetian lagoon reached not only into the spheres of economics and politics, but also devotional networks.

The mural featuring the Virgin Mary may be an Annunciation. There is an unidentifiable figure to her left and a servant girl to her right.

This detail is not unusual in Carolingian imagery and served to emphasise the Virgin’s noble status as a matrona. While this feature appears only rarely after the Carolingian period, the Visitation mosaic of San Marco attests to its survival in around 1200. Such a small yet meaningful similarity between the two images prompts further investigation into artistic ties between Torcello and Venice over the longue durée. The newly discovered murals in Torcello not only add a new dimension to ongoing discussions about Byzantine and Carolingian competition in the north Adriatic, but open fresh lines of enquiry into the early artistic development of Venice and the lagoon.

Here is a fantastic webinar about the restoration of the mosaics and the discovery of the frescoes in the basilica hosted by Save Venice.


Grave of imposing Anglo-Saxon warrior found in Berkshire

Monday, October 5th, 2020

An excavation near the town of Marlow in southern England has unearthed the grave of an imposingly large and well-outfitted warrior from the 6th century. The grave was originally discovered by metal detectorist Sue Washington in March 2018. They began to unearth two round copper alloy vessels but stopped when they realized the objects were very old and fragile. They reported their discovery to the Berkshire Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Finds Liaison Officer excavated the find site.

It was a targeted dig to carefully remove the two vessels the finders had uncovered. In the process, the archaeologist also found two spearheads buried in close proximity to each other, a larger one on top of a smaller. When one of the bowls was lifted, a single bone from a toe was found. The presence of human remains and the objects recovered indicated this was an ancient grave. The bowls and spearheads were recovered for conservation and the site reburied for later exploration.

One of the vessels is a hanging bowl or bucket of the Gotlankessel type, characterized by its rounded, almost spherical shape and the triangular lugs that connect the curved iron handle to the rim of the bowl. It is undecorated. These types of vessels are believed to have been produced by workshops in the Namur region of modern-day Belgium. They date from the late 5th century through the 6th century.

The other is a flanged bowl with repoussé decoration around the flanged edge. This kind of decoration is typical of Late Roman designs but the bowl itself is likely an early medieval object inspired by Roman work. It dates to the first quarter of the 6th century.

Both vessels were heavily damaged by agricultural activity. Much of the flange of the bowl was in pieces and the foot ring was detached leaving a hole in the bottom. The hanging bucket is missing one of its lugs and its base was crumpled and fragmentary. Had the finders attempted to pull them out on their own, without question they would have caused irreparable damage to the fragile assemblage. Because they were so responsible and the objects were professionally excavated, conservators were able to piece them back together and remove much of the corrosion. The bowl is almost complete now, with only a chunk missing from the flange. The cauldron is a little worse for wear than the bowl. There are holes where the base curves into the sides and a large gap on one side.

The two spearheads made it through the centuries remarkably well. They were heavily corroded when found, but thankfully most of the original metal was found intact when the corrosion products were removed. Their styles date them to early Post-Roman period, around 450-550 A.D.

This August, archaeologists from the University of Reading and a team of volunteers did the first thorough survey and excavation of the find site. They found additional luxury objects including glass vessels, garment fittings and shears, and the full skeleton of the man who owned all those grave goods. He was buried with his sword still in its scabbard by his side, and it is in excellent condition. The scabbard is made of wood and leather and decorated with bronze fittings. It is one of the best preserved sheathed swords from this period ever found.

Dr Gabor Thomas, a specialist in early medieval archaeology at the University of Reading, said: “We had expected to find some kind of Anglo-Saxon burial, but what we found exceeded all our expectations and provides new insights into this stretch of the Thames in the decades after the collapse of the Roman administration in Britain.

“This the first burial of its kind found in the mid-Thames basin, which is often overlooked in favour of the Upper Thames and London. It suggests that the people living in this region may have been more important than historians previously suspected.

“This guy would have been tall and robust compared to other men at the time, and would have been an imposing figure even today. The nature of his burial and the site with views overlooking the Thames suggest he was a respected leader of a local tribe and had probably been a formidable warrior in his own right.”

The discovery of the Marlow Warlord may shed new light on a little-known period in the mid-Thames Valley. In the 6th century, this area was thought to be a borderland between the burgeoning tribal groups that would evolve into the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Kent. The presence of so important a figure may indicate there was a tribe here of significant local power that was later muscled out by or absorbed into the larger neighboring tribes that became kingdoms.

The remains of the Marlow Warlord will be studied further by University of Reading archaeologists in the hopes of learning more about the man — his age, where he was born and raised, what he ate, any health issues he may have had and how he died. The objects are still undergoing conservation. Sue Washington has donated the vessels and spearheads to the Buckinghamshire Museum in Aylesbury which plans to put them on display in 2021 when the museum reopens after renovation.


The importance of woolly dogs and fish

Sunday, October 4th, 2020

A comprehensive new study published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology of archaeological remains of canids has found domestic dogs were ubiquitous among the ancient peoples of the Northwest Coast of what are now the United States and Canada, the product of dedicated domestication and breeding going back at least to the mid-Holocene (7,000 – 5,000 years ago). Wild canids like coyotes, foxes and wolves, on the other hand, are extremely rare. There is nothing like this density of domesticated dog remains associated with any other indigenous peoples elsewhere in North America.

Researchers from the University of Victoria examined 172,310 mammal bones unearthed over 55 years of archaeological exploration at 210 sites. Of those, 1,400 were canid bones recovered from 49 different sites. More than 99% of them came from domesticated dogs. The remains of domesticated dogs came in two distinct types: one small, Spitz-like breed and one medium-sized dingo-like dog. The small one was the Salish wool dog. The larger were “village dogs,” used for hunting and protection.

The study found the greatest density of domesticated dog bones on the east coast of Vancouver island, the mouth of the Fraser River and the Gulf Island, areas where traditional accounts and documented European encounters record the presence of the small dogs and their prized wool. It’s likely that these were centers of carefully controlled breeding — the woollies and the village dogs were kept strictly apart to ensure the healthy survival of the recessive gene that makes the characteristic coat — and that the dogs were traded to other groups.

Northwest Coast nations like the Coast Salish in what is now Washington state and the Tseshaht people of British Columbia, for millennia bred small dogs with dense, woolly coats specifically for the production of textiles. The dog wool textiles evolved from local objects of use and craft into a major currency for international trade. The cultural and economic importance of them to the Northwest Coast peoples explains why there is such a great number of domesticated canids on the archaeological record there and nowhere else.

In a related study published in Scientific Reports of recently-excavated skeletal remains of woolly dogs found on Keith Island, one of the Broken Group of islands in Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, researchers were able to use stable isotope analysis to discover what the woolly dogs ate. Spoiler: like kings.

“Our research indicates that Tseshaht dogs were eating and possibly being fed significant amounts of marine fish—specifically, anchovy, herring and salmon—amounting to approximately half of the food they consumed throughout their lives,” says Hillis.

“We were able to provide direct and detailed evidence for the consumption of marine resources by dogs and humans of Tseshaht territory,” Hillis adds. “Obviously, the role that humans took was substantial since dogs were not catching these fast-moving fish on their own,” he adds.

Nothing like fish oil to make a dog’s coat healthy and glossy.


1890s elevator found in historic Florida hotel

Saturday, October 3rd, 2020

Construction workers remodeling a historic 19th century hotel discovered its first electric elevator sealed behind a wall. The cables atop the cab were cut and the shaft and stairwell closed off decades ago, but nothing else was touched. The cab is in excellent condition, as is the machinery once used to operate it. A plaque brands it as a product of The Warner Elevator Manufacturing Company of Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Detroit Hotel plays a starring role in the legend of the founding of the city. General John C. Williams bought the land on Tampa Bay that would become St. Petersburg in 1876. He offered Russian immigrant and railroad magnate Peter Demens the property of the future Detroit Hotel in exchange for him extending the Orange Belt Railway into the town. They flipped a coin to see which of them would get to name the city they were co-founding. Demens won and named it St. Petersburg after his hometown. Williams would go on to the name the hotel he and Demens built after his own hometown of Detroit.

The Queen Anne-style mansion opened in 1888 with 40 guest rooms and no guests. The hotel was alone on an unpaved road, no neighboring businesses, no homes, just the terminus of the Orange Belt Railway. There weren’t 40 people living there, never mind visiting, so it was quite the optimistic gamble. Business began to pick up the next year when the railway offered tour packages to sunny St. Petersburg with its top notch hotel. St. Petersburg was incorporated as a town in 1892, population 300. By the turn of the century, Central Avenue had a bank, an inn, another hotel, a realtor, a drug store, a jewelry store and hat store. A fish wholesale shipping business on the railroad pier became the town’s first major industry.

The Detroit Hotel grew along with the city. An large brick addition to the west side in 1910 more than doubled the rooms, adding another 63. Another addition on the east side in 1914 added again more room, but the massive brick wings erased the original Queen Anne wood siding and balconies from view. Its last days as a hotel was 1993. After that it was converted to condos in 2002 and in 2010 designated a historic local landmark in the St. Petersburg Register of Historic Places. Today the bottom floor is being renovated by the Segreti Hospitality Group for use as a restaurant and a pizzeria/brewery.

The rediscovered elevator was not installed during the original construction of the hotel in 1888. It’s an electric model and St. Petersburg didn’t get electricity until August 1897, so this elevator dates to the last couple of years of the 19th century.

Now the plan is to restore and incorporate the rediscovered elements of the 1888 building into design centerpieces of the new business at 217 Central Avenue. The elevator could hold a table, and be reserved for private dining. More likely, it will become a photo booth.

“We’re going to try to restore it to its historical glory, and really bring out what this building has hidden for so long,” said Segreti’s spokeswoman Dana Speer.

Behind another wall workers discovered some extremely old wallpaper that appears hand-painted. Segreti’s CEO Frank Segreti says he’s not sure if it’s “the original wallpaper,” but maybe.

They framed it, and are now working to recreate more of it for use in the new restaurant. The staircase won’t lead anywhere, Segreti said, but it’s being restored to hearken back to when it was part of the hotel lobby.

They also discovered the hotel’s historic telephone switchboard, cables neatly bundled, each switch labeled with the room number it connected. It will be left where it is and encased in glass for the enjoyment of visitors.


Viking skeleton family reunion

Friday, October 2nd, 2020

The skeleton of a Dane murdered by order of King Aethelred II in the St Brice’s Day Massacre of November 13th, 1002, will be reunited with a close family member in Denmark 1018 years after his death. The skeleton, dubbed SK1756, was unearthed in 2008 in a mass grave discovered on the grounds of Oxford University’s St John’s College. He was one of 35 males, 33 adults and two boys, who were violently murdered by an Oxford mob and buried in a pit. DNA analysis has found that SK1756 was closely related to a male skeleton recently discovered in Denmark. He was the Oxford’s victim’s uncle, nephew, grandfather, grandson or half-brother.

SK1756 is kept at the Oxfordshire County Council’s Museum Resource Centre. Osteological examination revealed brutal wounds. He had been bludgeoned, taking eight to 10 blows to the head, and then, presumably after he’d fallen, was stabbed repeatedly in the spine. Stable isotope analysis confirmed that the dead included people born and raised in what are now Denmark and Germany as well as some raised in the UK, consistent with contemporary reports that all Danes, raiders and settlers, men, women and children, were targets of deadly violence on Brice’s Day.

The events were reported in contemporary chronicles and official documents. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 1002 “the king and his council agreed that tribute should be given to the fleet, and peace made with them, with the provision that they should desist from their mischief. Then sent the king to the fleet Alderman Leofsy, who at the king’s word and his council made peace with them, on condition that they received food and tribute; which they accepted, and a tribute was paid of 24,000 pounds.” Then later that same year “the king gave an order to slay all the Danes that were in England. This was accordingly done on the mass-day of St. Brice; because it was told the king, that they would beshrew him of his life, and afterwards all his council, and then have his kingdom without any resistance.”

The charter of St. Fridewide’s Priory, issued by by King Æthelred in 1004, two years after the St. Brice’s Day massacres, approvingly described the explosion of mob violence in Oxford that day:

For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since a decree (decretum) was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town [Oxford], striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make a refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books.

The Norman chronicler Guillaume de Jumièges writing 50 years later with a notably anti-Anglo-Saxon spin contributed the Danish perspective:

But while, as we learnt above, under such a famous ruler the prosperity of Normandy grew, Æthelred, king of the English, defiled a kingdom that had long flourished under the great glory of most powerful kings with such a dreadful crime that in his own reign even the heathens judged it as a detestable, shocking deed. For in a single day he had murdered, in a sudden fury and without charging them with any crime, the Danes who lived peacefully and quite harmoniously throughout the kingdom and who did not at all fear for their lives. He ordered women to be buried up to the waists and the nipples to be torn from their breasts by ferocious mastiffs set upon them. He also gave orders to crush little children against door-posts. When thus on the appointed day this outburst of violence, death and murder accumulated beyond measure, some quick and active young men took hold of a ship and fled, speedily rowing down the Thames out into the open sea. They crossed the wide sea and finally reached the harbour they sought in Denmark, and they they reported the bloody fate of their people to King Svein. Thereupon the king, deeply moved by great sorrow, summoned the magnates of the realm, and told them what had happened. Carefully he asked their advice as to how he should act. They were all much distressed and bewailed the calamity of their friends and kinsmen and with one voice decreed that every effort should be made to seek vengeance for their blood.

SK1756’s bro could well have been part of that vengeance expedition. If so, he survived it and made it home. Next year, SK1756 will be loaned to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen for a reunion with his long-lost kinsman in a new exhibition about the Vikings.


First case of Anglo-Saxon formal facial mutilation found

Thursday, October 1st, 2020

We know from historical sources and extant legal codes that the Anglo-Saxons practiced intentional facial mutilation as punishment, both by judicial decree and by societal custom, but because cutting off ears, noses and lips mainly affects the soft tissues, there have been no confirmed instances of it on the archaeological record. A new study of a previously unexamined cranium discovered in the 1960s has found the first direct evidence of formal facial mutilation.

The cranium was found during a salvage excavation before construction of a housing estate in Basingstoke, England. It was unearthed accidentally by a mechanical digger working on a drainage pit and discovered in the spoil. Because the context had been disturbed, there was no additional information — no other skeletal remains, no archaeological material — to indicate if this was an inhumation burial or a head alone, perhaps displayed after decapitation. It certainly was not a cemetery burial in consecrated ground. Full body or head alone, the deceased was deliberately outcast.

For decades the cranium was held in storage by the Hampshire Cultural Trust. Researchers from University College London’s Institute of Archaeology have now analyzed it for the first time. Thankfully it had never been cleaned, and the silt from its burial context still lined the interior. That silt was specific enough to pinpoint its original location as a spot on the east side of the drainage pit. Radiocarbon dating of the skull provides a likely date range of 776–899 A.D.

Osteological examination found the cranium belonged to a young person. Most of the teeth were lost over the centuries, but of the three remaining, two were unerupted. Two of the skull sutures were unfused; one was only beginning to fuse. Based on these features, researchers determined the individual was between 15 and 18 years of age at time of death. DNA analysis revealed that the cranium belonged to a young woman. Stable isotope analysis of the teeth was unable to identify where she was born and raised, beyond indicating that she was not local to the area.

There was significant peri-mortem trauma to the face: a linear cut on the forehead, angled cuts through the lower edge of the nasal aperture, a linear cut through the side edge of the nose hole, a nick on the right side of the face. These marks were left by a knife slicing from the bottom of the nose halfway up the nasal spine. The nick is from a cut through the lips made a different angle from the nose cut. This poor young woman had her nose and lips cut off, and the cut in the forehead suggests she may have been scalped too, or at least had her hair removed.

The mutilation was intended to punish by humiliation, destroying a woman’s beauty and marking her for life for her transgression. However in this case the injuries were so severe that they likely caused her death.

There can be little doubt that the victim died at the time of—or soon after—the traumatic event. The edges of the wound are sharp with no signs of remodelling that would indicate survival for even a few days afterwards. The injury to the individual’s nose could have been sufficient to cause her death, as the wound would probably have damaged the network of arteries in the back of her nose. Two plexuses of arteries supply the nose with blood (Pope & Hobbs 2005). The anterior one, known as Kiesselbach’s plexus, is responsible for the majority of nose-bleeds, with bleeding easily controlled by applying pressure. Injury to the posterior (Woodruff’s) plexus tends to cause bleeding down the throat, and can only be controlled by packing the rear of the nasal structures above the soft palate—a procedure unlikely to have been known to Anglo-Saxon practitioners. In the present case, the nasal wound probably caused profuse bleeding from the posterior plexus, leading to death by choking. Whether her death resulted directly from the mutilation or from other injuries, however, is unknowable in the absence of the post-cranial skeleton. […]

The specificity of the wounds strongly suggests that her mutilation was punitive, either at the hands of a local mob marking her perceived offence by established custom, or by local administrators applying legal prescription. In either scenario, the woman—or at least her head—was then outcast to the limit of the local territory. As noted above, the isolated nature of the cranium perhaps indicates punishment at the most local level.

The study has been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read here.


Merovingian-era skeleton found in Norway

Thursday, October 1st, 2020

Archaeologists have unearthed a skeleton from the Merovingian era buried on Gimsøya, one of the islands in the Lofoten archipelago of northwestern Norway. An Iron Age farm was known to have active in the area, so when a new campsite was planned near the town of Hov, archaeologists surveyed the site before construction to salvage any cultural heritage materials.

The first evidence of an ancient burial on the premises was discovered in August: a human femur followed by a hip bone. They were in good enough condition to suggest there might be a fully body in the ground. That proved accurate. The team excavated the bottom half of the body first, and then uncovered the top half.

The skeleton was crouched in a fetal-like position, with one arm pulled up towards the head and the other with a clenched fist.

Archaeologists believe the individual was a man, but they are not certain. “The person is clearly not one of those who stood tallest in society, because there is no great decoration, weapons or such things. So far it seems that the individual had an ax, and not much more than that,” said Niemi.

However, it appears the axe is strangely placed: “Right now we are trying to find out if the axe is stuck in the lower jaw or lying next to it.”

The bones have not been radiocarbon dated yet and the axe can’t be dates, so there were no grave goods that might provide a possible date range. Based on the age of charcoal samples recovered in an associated cultivation layer near the skeleton, archaeologists estimate the burial dates to the Merovingian era, the 8th or 9th century.

What makes this modest burial of an unknown individual so unusual is that it somehow managed to survive at all. It’s a total fluke that it wasn’t destroyed over centuries of agricultural use. Just how much of a fluke is underscored by the discovery of plow furroughs not eight inches away from the skull. The area was aggressively exploited in the 1950s and 60s for its rich peat deposits which were bulldozed and stripped away. This person was buried down deep originally, and that extra depth is what saved it from destruction.

All of the findings from the excavation, skeleton and axe included, will be sent to the University of Tromsø for storage and examination.





October 2020


Add to Technorati Favorites