Mass grave found in Vianen moat

Archaeologists have discovered a mass grave that may date to the late Middle Ages during canal work in Vianen, the Netherlands. The skeletal remains of nine individuals were discovered Friday, and by Monday the team had found another 11. Archaeologists expect to find the remains of more people as they enlarge the excavation area.

Preliminary examination of the skeletal remains unearthed so far has found they belonged to young men between 15 and 30 years old. There are no grave goods, no textile fragments, not even a button to give a clue as to the dating and identity of the deceased. Some of the skeletons were stacked and corroded iron nails found at the site indicate some of the bodies were buried in wooden boxes that have disintegrated. Two individuals were laid to rest in one coffin, turned on their sides and in alternating orientation, one with feet pointing north, the other with feet pointing south. They haven’t been dated yet, but archaeologists believe the mass grave dates to the Late Middle Ages.

The grave was dug just outside the walls of the now-defunct Batestein Castle. Originally built in the 14th century nestled against the city walls of Vianen, much of the castle burned down in a fireworks show gone horribly wrong in 1696 and today all that remains is the Hof Gate and a few walls. The bodies were buried outside the gate on the slope of the city moat, a stretch which in the Middle Ages contained the castle’s stables.

They were buried at the same time, so were probably victims of an infectious disease like plague or cholera, or of a war. If it’s the latter, it probably took place in the early 1480s during the struggle with the County of Holland for the secular territory of the Prince-Bishopric of Utrecht, a local offshoot of the Hook and Cod civil wars fought between Dutch nobles (the Hooks) and supporters of the Dukes of Burgundy/Holy Roman Emperor (the Cods). Batestein Castle was owned by the lords of Van Brederode who were big-time Hooks. The castle was betrayed by a Dutch Cod who opened the east gate and let in a raiding mob from Utrecht. A hundred years later there was another battle here in the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish Habsburgs.

The excavation is ongoing and expected to last at least another four weeks. It depends on how deep the bodies go. They’ve dug down enough so far to find a skull 16 feet below the first find, and there are an unknown number of skeletons between them. The remains will be removed for osteological examination. Researchers will look for signs of blunt and sharp-force trauma or disease. The bones will be radiocarbon dated and DNA tested.

Oldest evidence of horseback riding in China

Researchers have discovered the oldest direct evidence of mounted horseback riding in China. Horse burials have shown that the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppes were riding domesticated horses at least as far back as the 18th century B.C., but there has been no equivalent hard archaeological data found in China to indicate when horseback riding was adopted. Analysis of ancient horse bones discovered in Shirenzigou and Xigou in Xinjiang, northwest China, has now revealed that people in the area were riding horses by 350 B.C., predating the Silk Road trade through the region.

The skeletons of eight horses from the Late Warring States period were unearthed in nearly complete condition, which made a thorough osteological examination possible. With entire bodies to examine, researchers were able to establish patterns of stress typical of horseback riding seen at other archaeological sites and in modern veterinary practice.

Analysis of vertebrae found pathologies like excessive bone growth and fractures in 60% of the 240 vertebrae examined. They were concentrated in the bones of the lower back which is where horses bear the most stress from carrying riders.

The skulls of six of the horses were found to have deep grooves in the nose bones caused by heavy breathing and overdeveloped muscles, evidence the animals were worked hard. The deeper the groove, the more strenuous the exertion over the longest period of time.

Next the teeth were examined. Of the six horses discovered with intact teeth, all of them suffered from abrasions on their lower second premolars. This was the result of contact with an iron bit pulled hard by a rider. If it’s tugged back sharply enough, the bit hits the teeth.

Taken together, these bone and tooth abnormalities are textbook examples of what happens when horses are ridden heavily, said Alan Outram, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, not involved in the research.

“There’s no question that these horses are riding horses,” he said.

“We don’t know how horses went from being an animal that was primarily pulling chariots to one that was engaging in sophisticated cavalry combat,” he said. “Here are some clues to that story.”

Humans buried at the site confirm the discovery. Femurs of adult males from several burials exhibited curved diaphysis, an abnormality caused by habitual horse riding from a young age, as well as other biomechanical stressors associated with equestrianism. An iron bit was also found, as was a plethora of arrowheads, evidence of mounted archery.

Tracing the emergence of horseback riding is the first step to better understanding how this practice catalyzed crucial changes across China, [University of Colorado Museum of Natural History archaeologist William] Taylor said.

“We don’t know how horses went from being an animal that was primarily pulling chariots to one that was engaging in sophisticated cavalry combat,” he said. “Here are some clues to that story.”

Artemisia exhibition film: a review

This year London’s National Gallery is putting on the first exhibition in the UK dedicated solely to Baroque master Artemisia Gentileschi. The exhibition has been postponed twice due to COVID and is currently shut down until December 2nd. With major showcases like this that rely on priceless artworks loaned from other collections, changing the dates requires an enormous amount of effort and forbearance, not to mention expense, and with in-person museum attendance in ashes right now, the National Gallery is offering a curator-led film tour of the exhibition on demand for £8.

It’s an idea with possibilities, even under non-pandemic circumstances, and I was curious to see whether it was worth the price of admission, so I booked a ticket. You do you have to create an account on the National Gallery website first ; name, email, phone number and address are all required. You are allowed a single “booking,” which will grant your account access to the film tour for 48 hours. The film can only be viewed on the National Gallery website. To watch, click your email address in the upper right of the screen, and select “online films” from the menu listing under “My account” on the left. Click the Watch Now button to view.

The movie is hosted by Letizia Treves, the museum’s curator of Later Italian, Spanish and French 17th-century Paintings. She walks through the galleries, starting with works from Artemisia’s early years in Rome. Treves gives a brief biography of Artemisia and introduces the viewer to the artist’s first signed work, Susannah and the Elders, painted when she was 17 years old. Treves then relays how Artemisia was raped by her father’s colleague Agostino Tassi and how we know every detail of the ensuing trial because the original transcripts have survived. That transcript is on display in this gallery, loaned out for the first time by the State Archive in Rome.

Treves continues a chronological narration of Artemisia’s life and moves to the next gallery featuring works from her time in Florence. She painted some of her most famous pieces during this time, including two versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes, which Treves focuses on in her explanation. She then moves to the other side of the room and a series of self-portraits.

Artemisia achieved fame and success as an artist in Florence, enough that she became both author and subject of commissioned portraits when she returned to Rome. In the next gallery is a portrait of her done by another artist and portraits she made of noble subjects, but the real get are letters she wrote to her lover, rediscovered in 2011 in the Archivio Frescobaldi and on display here for the first time. Treves doesn’t read any of them verbatim, sadly, but she does summarize a few intriguing passages.

The next gallery features works from Artemisia’s artistic peak, paintings of Biblical and Classical motifs with women protagonists — Judith, Susannah, Mary Magdalene, Lucretia — done in dramatic light to satisfy buyers’ tastes for Caravaggismo. The works shift in scale and subject in the next gallery, following her move to Naples. Then under Spanish rule, Naples offered Artemisia a wide international pool of patrons, and it’s here that she painted her first monumental altarpieces. These were also her first collaborative works.

Except for a brief stay in London, she would live in Naples until her death, expanding her repertoire to literary subjects and allegories. The next gallery features a monumental Birth of St. John the Baptist she painted for the King of Spain and her last documented painting, a Susannah and the Elders. The final gallery in the show presents paintings she and her father Orazio, who were reunited in London, made in the closing years of their careers. One allegory, a personification of painting, that is likely a self-portrait is the only work documented to have been painted when she was in London.

Once the walkthrough of the exhibition’s galleries is concluded, Trevers takes a closer look at a few highlight pieces: the earliest Susannah, Judith sawing Holofernes’ head off in gore aplenty, Judith and her maidservant with the head of Holofernes in a basket, a later Susannah and the Birth of St John the Baptist.

So was the film worth the price of admission? It was interesting and a nice overview of an exhibition I’ll never get to see, but it was a little sparse for my taste. It’s short at just under half an hour, and it felt like Trevers was in a rush (which she was). Also, there was a missed opportunity here to mix media. In my ideal guided tour, there would be links that allow you to explore gigapixel images of the works themselves, plus transcripts and translations of the documents.

No regrets whatsoever, though. Museums have been brutalized this year, and I’ll gladly pay 10 bucks for content. They generate so much of it for free, it’s the very, VERY least I could do.

Rare Viking chamber grave found in central Norway

Archaeologists have unearthed an extremely rare chamber grave of a woman from the Viking period at Hestnes, central Norway. The excavation had returned evidence of settlement — post holes, cooking pits — but there was no indication of any graves at the site until the team came across evidence of a rectangular structure in the earth. A dark, greasy layer of soil indicated they’d come across a grave, and excavation revealed the rectangle about 5.5 feet long and three feet wide was what remains of a wooden burial chamber dating from the mid-9th century to the mid-10th century A.D.

“This chamber grave is special, because hardly any examples of graves of this type have been found in our part of the country,” says archaeologist and project manager Raymond Sauvage.

Sauvage explains that the chamber was built in a hole in the ground. After the deceased woman was laid in it, a lid was placed on top. The grave is dated to 850 – 950 CE, and very little was left of the chamber itself after more than 1000 years underground.

“We found imprints of the four posts that stood in each corner and some of the walls. The construction technique and size helped confirm that it’s a chamber grave,” says Sauvage.

Wooden chamber graves were fashionable in urban centers during this period. Hundreds have been discovered in cities like Birka and Hedeby, but they are seldom found outside of population centers.

The burial is unusual in its grave goods as well. The deceased was laid to rest with fine jewelry, including a trefoil brooch that fastened her cloak at her neck. These types of brooches are thought to manufactured in Hedeby which was Old Danish territory at the time. They are rare in Norway, and when they have been discovered there, it’s usually in the southeast of the country which was once Danish.

Even more unusual were the turtle brooches discovered in the grave. The double-shelled brooches were typically used to pin up robes, but these had a whole different function: they held the remains of bone and teeth inside the curved double shells.

Archaeologists have also recovered 339 tiny beads from the grave. The green and purple beads are between one and two millimeters wide, so small the team had to use mesh netting to sift the soil and catch the beads. The mini-beads are yet another extremely rare find. Only a few have been unearthed in graves before, nothing like this number in one place. The densest concentration of beads were over the deceased’s right shoulder. They may have been part of a bead necklace, or may have been used in an embroidered textile.

“In archaeology, it’s common to think that the artefacts in the graves tell us something about the status and identity of the person who was buried. This artefact material indicates that the woman came from the south-eastern part of Scandinavia, and that she was buried according to her own cultural tradition,” says Sauvage.

We can only speculate how she ended up here, but Sauvage says she might have come to Hestnes through an arranged marriage.

“Travelling great distances and building networks over large areas is typical of the Viking Age. Alliances and friendships were the primary social glue in Viking Age society. It was through them that you built your social status and gained political power in an area. Marriage was a way to ally two families in this system,” he says.

Researchers hope to answer questions about her origins by analyzing the bone and teeth found in the turtle brooches.

Ancient Puebloan blanket made with 11,550 turkey feathers

A new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports has found that the Ancestral Pueblo people of the Southwest used more than 11,000 feathers from four to 10 turkeys to make a single 3’3″x 3’6″ blanket. The study used a yucca fiber blanket framework on display at the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah, as a template. Its feathers have been lost to insect activity but the rachises of which remain in the yucca warp cords. Analysis of the featherless blanket framework and a second, smaller blanket with intact feathers dating to the 1200s concluded that the framework would have had 11,550 feathers when intact. The number of turkeys necessary to collect this many feathers was estimated by examining the pelts of adult wild turkeys which are comparable anatomically to the extinct domestic turkey of the Ancestral Pueblo.

The feathers offered better insulation than the twined strips of cottontail rabbit fur that preceded them as the preferred material among prehistoric foragers in the west, and had the added advantage of sustainability, as feathers can be harvested regularly without requiring the demise of their donor. They are also more durable than rabbit skins. Turkey feather blankets became so widespread in the Pueblo communities that researchers estimate that households had a turkey feather wearing blanket, bed blanket or funerary wrapping for each member of the family, adult and child from the Basketmaker II period into the 19th century when Pueblo turkey farming disappeared under Spanish occupation.

Blankets, mantles and robes lined with turkey feathers were highly valued objects in the Ancestral Pueblo communities of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona (known as the Upland Southwest). These communities were at high altitudes where winters were cold and even summers were cool at night. Blankets  made of turkey feathers and plant fiber cords began to appear in the Basketmaker II period (400 B.C. – 500 A.D.) when the cultivation of maize as the base of their diet drove groups to build permanent settlements. The earliest evidence of domestication of turkeys in the Upland Southwest communities date to the first two centuries, but they didn’t become a major food source until the 12th century.

Blanket feathers were probably most frequently collected from live birds, although natural molts or recently killed birds may have contributed.

This would have allowed sustainable collection of feathers several times a year over a bird’s lifetime, which could have exceeded 10 years.

“When the blanket we analyzed for our study was made, we think in the early 1200s CE, the birds that supplied the feathers were likely being treated as individuals important to the household and would have been buried complete,” Professor Lipe said.

“This reverence for turkeys and their feathers is still evident today in Pueblo dances and rituals. They are right up there with eagle feathers as being symbolically and culturally important.”

The study, Staying warm in the upland southwest: A “supply side” view of turkey feather blanket production, can be read in its entirety here.