Archive for December, 2020

Britain’s first known 5th c. mosaic found

Thursday, December 10th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered the first known British mosaic created in the 5th century at Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire. Absolute dating of this mosaic in Room 28 was made possible by the discovery of charcoal and bone sealed in the foundation trench of one of its walls. Radiocarbon dating of the organic materials found that the wall was built after 424 A.D., and the mosaic could only have been laid after that.

The traditionally accepted view among historians has been that Britain went into a rapid economic decline after the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410 A.D. The legions and imperial functionaries took their wages with them and new coinage stopped being imported into Britain. That cratered the market for sophisticated craftsmanship like mosaic floors and expensive imports, and populations turned to subsistence farming. Large villas and urban centers were abandoned or repurposed.

This view has been revised in recent years, as new discoveries in Wales, Cornwall and England indicate that pockets of Roman-style administration and culture survived the collapse of Roman rule and the rise of local warlords. Coins from the reign of Theodosius found underneath a mosaic pavement in the Roman villa at Hucclecote, just 15 miles northwest of Chedworth, was laid after 395 A.D., but it’s not known exactly how long after. That’s why the radiocarbon dating results are so significant, because they are hard evidence that Roman mosaic work was done long after the demise of Roman political control.

Room 28 was created by the division of an existing room (hence the construction of the wall). When the new space was complete, the mosaic floor was installed to fit the room. Today most of the floor is lost, but the edges survive. The outer border is in a guilloche pattern with alternating flowers and knots in the circles. There are some errors in the design and the overall quality of the work is inferior to the older mosaics found elsewhere in the villa.

[Martin Papworth, National Trust archaeologist,] continues: “It is interesting to speculate why Chedworth Villa’s owners were still living in this style well into the 5th century. It seems that in the West Country, the Romanised way of life was sustained for a while. Many large, richly decorated Roman Villas have been found in the countryside around Cirencester, which is around 8 miles from Chedworth.

“By the end of the 4th century, Cirencester was the second largest Romano-British town after London and had become the capital of a separate province ‘Britannia Prima’. The wealth of these many lavish villas surrounding this provincial capital surpassed that of any group found across the rest of Britain. Perhaps this territory occupied a more protected area, sheltered from the hostile raids taking place from the north and along the western and eastern coasts.

“We have also made occasional finds of 5th-6th century pottery from Africa and Palestine amongst the ruins at Chedworth which are also strong indicators of sub-Roman high-status occupation at this time. Scraps of similar pottery which have been found in other local villas suggest that Chedworth was not a unique survivor during the troubled times of the 5th century.”

Here’s a flythrough of the mosaic in Room 28 of Chedworth Roman Villa:


Ghost fishing net in Baltic ensnares Enigma machine

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020

Divers working for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to remove fishing nets abandoned in the Baltic Sea caught a bigger fish than they expected: a World War II Enigma machine. It was on the seabed ensnared in a ghost net. The diver who first spotted it thought it was an old typewriter, but his colleague, underwater archaeologist Florian Huber, immediately suspected from the description that it was an Enigma machine. People don’t usually toss old typewriters overboard in the middle of the Baltic, while Enigmas were used by the German navy and certainly went down with ships and submarines. Two weeks later the two returned to the find site together and Huber confirmed that it was indeed an Enigma machine.

It was found on the bottom of Geltinger Bay where dozens of German U-boats were deliberately sunk by the German Navy in May of 1945. This machine is an M3 model with three rotors, so it must have come from a warship rather than a submarine as the U-boats were equipped with four-rotor M4 machines. The nameplate has yet to be deciphered. It won’t baldly state the name of the vessel it was on, but it will provide a clue to its history.

The Enigma enciphering machine was used by the German military to create and receive coded messages before and during the war. It used a system of rotors, lamps and plugboards to scramble text that would then be unscrambled by a receiving machine calibrated to the same settings — wheel order, rotor positions, plugboard connections — as the originating machine. The sequences were changed daily. The Polish Cipher Bureau was able to figure out the method of encryption before the war, but it was the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, especially mathematician Alan Turing, who finally broke Enigma in 1941. German forces kept adding rotors, plugs and lamps, increasing the level of difficulty, but they never realized that the Allies, armed with Colossus computers capable of calculating the daily key settings, could read their encrypted messages.

Engima machines were produced in large quantities throughout the war. Approximately 100,000 of the machines were deployed, but most of them were discarded or destroyed. Today it’s rare to find an Enigma machine that is entirely original. The ones in museums are often Frankensteined together from several incomplete machines.

The divers have reported the find to the Schleswig-Holstein State Office for Archeology which will study and conserve the Enigma for eventual display. The desalination process alone will take a year.


Jordaens masterpiece found in Brussels town hall

Tuesday, December 8th, 2020

An artwork that has been hanging at the Saint-Gilles City Hall in Brussels for 60 years has been discovered to be an original work by Baroque Master Jacques Jordaens. The painting, believed to be a copy of a well-known Holy Family by Jordaens, went barely noticed on the wall of the Town Planning and Development alderman’s office until a full inventory was taken of the City Hall’s surprisingly huge art collection., a department of the Brussels Capital Region, asked the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) to take inventory of all the moveable cultural property hanging on the walls or stored in the attics at the Saint-Gilles City Hall. There are more than 800 artworks in the building and the inventory took a year. The Holy Family on the town planning office wall was attributed to a follower of Jordaens and was thought to be a copy of composition with three extant versions hanging in world-class museums (the Metropolitan Museum of New York, Saint-Petersburg’s Hermitage and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich).

As soon as the KIK-IRPA team took it down, they noticed previously-unrecorded signs that this was an original work on the back of the oak panel. In the bottom half, there is a mark of a hand — there was a second palm as part of the mark but it was covered when a new wood cradle was added to the back in the 19th century — and the castle of Antwerp, also partially obscured by the wooden reinforcements. This was the stamp of the Guild of Saint Luke of Antwerp burned into the panel with a hot iron. Next to the castle mark is a monogram GA, for Guilliam Aertssen. Aertssen was a frame and panel maker and master of the Guild of Saint Luke. He made panels for all the top artists in Antwerp, Jordaens among them. He used this style of mark between 1617 and 1623.

For a year, art historians and conservators studied the painting with every technique at their disposal — X-ray, IR, UV, macro-XRF imaging — and a dendrochronologist counted the growth rings visible along the edge of the panels. She found the Baltic oak tree used to make the panel was felled in 1613. The multi-disciplinary study determined that it was an original Holy Family by Jacques Jordaens, and the oldest of all the ones extant, painted ca. 1617. The analysis of the wood also found that the panel comes from the same tree used by Anthony Van Dyck in three paintings. This confirms that Van Dyck and Jordaens worked together in Rubens’ studio when they were young men, around 1617.

A red wax seal of the Dutch noble Schuylenburgh family that dates to the early 19th century is the earliest evidence of ownership history. In the second half of the 19th century, the panel painting entered the collection of Leopold Speekaert, a wealthy Brussels painter and collector. When he died in 1915, he left his grand mansion and art collection to the municipality of Saint-Gilles which made a museum of the mansion with all its art in 1917. A Holy Family hung in the entrance hall. It was tentatively attributed to Jacques Jordaens at that time. In 1965, the museum deemed maintenance of the house too expensive, so it was sold, demolished (sigh) and the whole art collection was moved to town hall.

The painting is in need of conservation. The varnish that has yellowed and previous touch-ups that have darkened will be removed. The back of the panel will be treated to prevent additional cracks and paint loss. Restoration complete, the Holy Family will be put on public display at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, home of the world’s largest collections of Jacques Jordaens.


Rare Greek-Illyrian helmet found in Croatia

Monday, December 7th, 2020

Archaeologists have unearthed an extremely rare Greek-Illyrian helmet in Zakotarac, Croatia. The bronze open-faced helmet was discovered in a cave tomb from the 4th century that was richly furnished with grave goods. The presence of the helmet suggests the tomb belonged to an elite warrior.

“In the grave we also found fragments of other iron weapons such as spears and knives. However, in addition to the warrior, at least two more persons were buried, one of whom was a woman, as indicated by the fragments of a bronze bracelet. The helmet itself is the standard type we call the Greek-Illyrian helmet. Such a helmet has several developmental stages, and this variant from the fourth century BC was used in both Greek and Illyrian areas. It is bronze, has a solid head protection and a characteristic rectangular cut for the face. To date, only about 40 have been found in Europe,” says project coordinator Dr. Hrvoje Potrebica from the Department of Archaeology of Zagredb University.

Fifteen bronze and silver fibulae, a dozen needles, spiral bronze jewelry, tweezers and hundreds of glass paste and amber beads were also found in the cave tomb, furnishings typical of female burials.

The landscape around the village is dotted with mounds which were part of a prehistoric settlement. Many of them have been damaged and looted over the centuries, and the tomb where the helmet was found was discovered during work on one of the looted mounds. The tomb, a rectangle about 10 by 6.5 feet in dimension, was cut out of the bedrock. Skeletal remains were found, but they are in such bad condition that archaeologists can only say that the body appears to have been laid in a west-east orientation.

The site has only recently been formally excavated. Archaeologists were invited by local historians to explore Peljesac in 2019. It is near an important Illyrian cave sanctuary where offerings were made to fertility deities between the 4th and 1st centuries B.C. The remains of more than 30 different pottery vessels, most of them Greek made either in the Attic peninsula or one of the southern Italian colonies, have been found in the sanctuary, deposited around a stalagmite that is believed to have been a phallic symbol. These were the most desirable and most expensive vessels available in the Mediterranean at that time. There is no direct evidence that they were traded to the area; it’s possible they were the spoils of piracy.

Excavations conducted between June and September of this year explored several of the prehistoric mounds surrounding the village. Two graves, one dating to the 10th century, B.C. the other to the 7th century B.C., were unearthed, underscoring the vast temporal scope of the finds in this area.

“The enormous potential of this site will encourage a more systematic approach to overall research. We hope that next year we will have the opportunity to continue our research to give the findings a broader context and to better understand, adequately protect and, in cooperation with the local community, present these unique landscapes that, combined with exceptional finds on Korcula, open a completely new picture of the importance of the southern Adriatic in the historical dynamics of this part of Europe,” said Potrebica.


Spur points to tomb of 15th c. chancellor

Sunday, December 6th, 2020

The tomb of the Nicholas Rolin, chancellor of the powerful dukedom of Burgundy in the 15th century, may have been discovered at the site of the church of Notre-Dame-du-Châtel in Autun. The church itself was a casualty of the French Revolution, and Nicholas’ remains were assumed to be lost, if not destroyed. A preventive excavation of the site, now the Place Saint-Louis, in advance of expansion of the Rolin Museum into the old prison and courthouse that border the square unearthed the jumbled bones of at least eight individuals in what had been the crypt of the church. One key artifact was found in the mix: a spur like the one Rolin had specified as part of his burial outfit.

“Fairly consistent clues allow us to confirm that this is indeed Nicolas Rolin’s cellar,” says Yannick Labaune. The certainties of archaeologists are based in particular on the presence of a spur that belonged to the illustrious chancellor of the 15th century. The presence of this spur appears in the testimonies and descriptions of the burial of Nicolas Rolin. “We also know that he was buried with a sword and a dagger, but archaeologists have not found them,” said Vincent Chauvet, Mayor of Autun. And to formulate the hypothesis that these two pieces were stolen during a looting during the dismantling of Notre Dame du Chatel.

Studies will continue in the laboratory in order to carry out DNA analyzes as well as Carbon 14 dating, in particular on the eight skulls found in the tomb. This work will provide more details and above all confirm, even if there is little doubt, that the tomb is indeed that of Nicolas Rolin. The scene will be photographed from different points of view in order to use the technique of photogrammetry and to preserve 3D images.

Born of modest bourgeois parents in Autun in 1376, Nicholas Rolin became and lawyer and vaulted over the restrictive social hierarchies of the Burgundian court to become chancellor to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. He served 40 years in the role and amassed a huge amount of wealth, titles, properties and honors on the way. He dispensed as well as he amassed; spending heavily on luxuries, the showier the better, artworks and charitable endeavors. He was a major patron of the Church, erecting churches, endowing new religious orders.

Notre-Dame-du-Châtel was a small parish church, not the city’s glamorous cathedral, but it was personally important to Nicholas. He was baptized there and his maternal family had donated an altar in the church’s side chapel of St. Sebastian. The church was in poor condition by the 1420s and Rolin used his money and influence to shore it back up, starting with a reconstruction of the family chapel and in 1431, the reconstruction of the entire church. He then pulled strings with the Pope to have the church’s status promoted from parish to collegiate (administered by a college of canons).

Around 1435, Nicholas Rolin commissioned a portrait from no lesser a master than Jan van Eyck, court painter of Philip the Good, to adorn the family chapel. He is depicted praying in front of the Virgin Mary and the infant Christ as the latter blesses him. It connects Rolin’s wealth (the opulent clothing and surroundings, vineyards in the background) and political success (the Treaty of Arras ending the Hundred Years’ War had just been signed with terms very much to Burgundy’s advantage) to his religious devotion and the direct favor of God.

(Naughty interlude: in 1431, the same year he funded the reconstruction of Notre-Dame-du-Châtel in Autun, Nicholas Rolin founded a Celestine convent in Avignon with his first son Jean, Bishop of Autun and future Cardinal, as co-founder. Jean, who shared his father’s thirst for all the luxuries the profane world had to offer, impregnated one of the nuns in that convent. Their son, also named Jean, would follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. A cleric, he served ambassador to the Holy See and to the court of King Charles VIII, the latter of whom legitimized his birth and made him his councilor. Jean’s last appointment was as Bishop of Autun, just like dear old dad.)

Nicholas Rolin died in 1462. He left detailed instructions for his funeral from the rites — three days of mourning “in public view of everyone” — down to the clothes he wanted to ear — white shirt, doublet, a velvet robe with a hood at the neck, a hat with a gold brooch pinned to the front, a sword on his side, a dagger on his other side, new shoes on his feet and gold spurs on his heels.

The church was demolished in 1793 and its building materials reused. The Van Eyck portrait was saved, thankfully, and eventually made its way to Louvre in 1805, despite numerous petitions from Autun citizens to Napoleon’s brother Lucien (who had gone to school in Autun) and Talleyrand (the former Bishop of Autun) asking for the masterpiece to be returned to the city. The oil-on-panel painting was intact, but it was missing its original frame which had borne Van Eyck’s signature and the date. The people buried inside the church, including Nicholas Rolin and his family, were given far less consideration. The burials were looted for any valuables and the bones discarded.

The bones that have been discovered at the church site will now be analyzed in the hope that Rolin’s remains might be identified. There’s no way of knowing right now whether his bones are even in the mix. Lots of people were buried in the church over the centuries, and the revolutionaries could just as easily have destroyed or tossed out Nicholas’ remains. The spur, which stylistically dates to the 15th century, is really the only link to him, and that’s tenuous because surely he was not the only man to be buried wearing spurs.


8 ancient tombs found on private land in Peloponnese

Saturday, December 5th, 2020

Archaeologists have unearthed eight tombs from the late Classical, early Hellenistic period on private property in the western Peloponnese municipality of Ilidos. The graves were of varied type — four cist graves lined with stones, three pithoi (massive clay vessels typically used for food storage but so large they could serve as coffins) and one coffin roofed with ceramic tiles — and range in date from the 4th to the 2nd century B.C.

One of the pithoi contained impressive grave goods: a richly decorated bronze vase with its original base and a bronze mirror. The vase has a floral design on its handles and is ornamented with lion heads between handles and rim. The mirror has a carved relief on the back. The style of the artifacts date the grave to the late 4th or early 3rd century B.C.

A tombstone with a gabled pediment is another of the stand-out finds from this excavation.

The burial grounds at Ilia have been a rich source for historians regarding ancient Greek burial practices. Since the ancient cemetery was discovered, over 200 grave sites have been unearthed there, many of which date from the Late Classical to the Hellenistic period.

Archaeologists have found a wealth of graves and funerary objects at Elis, helping them to piece together local funerary customs.

The site was occupied from the Middle Paleolothic (ca. 130,000 years before present) through the 7th century A.D. when it was destroyed by earthquakes. The ancient Greek city of Elis was said to have been founded in the 12th century B.C.,  and was established as the capital of the eponymous city-state in the 5th century B.C. It played a central role in organizing the Olympic Games (Olympia was in the Elis region) which granted it privileges from later conquerors like Philip II of Macedon who took the city in 343 B.C., around the time when the older of the eight tombs were built in the western necropolis. Elis was conquered by Rome in 146 B.C. and became part of the Roman province of Achaia.


Crosby Garret loophole to be closed

Friday, December 4th, 2020

The glaring loophole in the UK’s 1996 Treasure Act that allowed an exceptional Crosby Garrett Roman cavalry helmet to disappear into a private collection will soon be closed. Last year, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced a planned revision to the Treasure Act that would update the definition of “treasure” to preserve priceless archaeological patrimony for the public. The ministry has now announced that after a period of consultation and study, the definition of treasure will be changed to allow the designation of objects of great cultural or historical significance as treasure no matter what their material qualities.

The 1996 Treasure Act defines treasure as coins in a hoard that are 300 years old or older, two or more prehistoric objects made out of base metal, any non-coin object that is at least 300 years old and composed of at least 10% gold or silver, and gold and silver artifacts less than 300 years old with no known owners or heirs of owners. Any object determined to be treasure according to these criteria is assessed for fair market value and offered to a local museum for that sum. The prize is then split between finder and landowner. If it is does not qualify as treasure, it can be sold to whomever. This definition is a holdover from medieval common law standards that claimed treasure trove — gold and silver objects buried with the intent of later retrieval — for the crown. The Act abolished the ancient expectation of retrieval, but the focus on precious metal content and quantity was a direct descendant of this narrow, outdated view of what constitutes historical treasure.

The first year the Treasure Act went into effect, there were 79 treasure cases. Twenty years later in 2017 there were 1,267. There are a lot more metal detector hobbyists today than there were in 1996, and a lot more archaeological treasures have been found, some of which did not meet the criteria for treasure despite their ancient age, rarity, national and international importance. The Crosby Garret helmet and a Roman licking dog statue, both completely unique in the British archaeological record, both dating to the Roman period, both museum quality, failed to meet to the criteria because they were made out of bronze. An Allectus aureus in impeccable condition failed to be declared treasure because it was a single coin instead of one of two or more. They were all sold at auction to the highest bidder.

The revision was open to public consultation from February until the end of April 2019. The ministry received 1,461 responses to the consultation forms, 1,352 submitted online (one of those was me!).  Most of the responses came from individuals, with 190 submitted by organizations or groups. Out of the 190, 51 of them (26.8%) were metal detecting groups, 36 (18.9%) heritage/archaeology groups.  The government’s response to the consultation has now been released.

The changes will bring the treasure process into line with other important legislation to protect cultural heritage and collections, including the listing process for historically significant buildings and the export bar system.

A specialist research project running next year will inform the new definition and there will be opportunities for detectorists, archaeologists, museums, academics and curators to contribute to options in development.

As a result of the public consultation, the government will also introduce new measures to improve the experience of the treasure process which include a new time limit to streamline some stages of the process, limiting the number of times the Treasure Valuation Committee can review a case and developing a mechanism to return unclaimed rewards to museums.

The changes will not go into immediate effect. The redefinition will be researched further, the research published, the changes to the code drafted and the attendant legislation passed through Parliament. Implementation of the new policies will, if all goes well, take place in 2022.


6th c. B.C. grave raised in huge soil block

Thursday, December 3rd, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered a large chamber grave from the 6th century B.C. near the Iron Age Heuneburg hillfort outside Herbertingen, southern Germany. The wooden chamber grave was at the center of an early Celtic burial mound which archaeologists have been exploring since last year. A targeted excavation unearthed the wood of the burial chamber and within in, some luxurious grave goods — an amber brooch, ribbed tubular gold beads. One bronze piece found with wood fragments still attached may have been part of a chariot.

The team also found the partially-preserved remains of organic materials which aren’t as shiny as gold jewels, but are of immense archaeological significance and extremely fragile. Several years of drought have already damaged these treasures which have survived the millennia in the waterlogged soil of the Danube plain.

To prevent further rapid deterioration of the organic remains, including the timbers of the chamber and other wood pieces that may have been part of a cart or chariot , and excavate the contents of the grave in controlled conditions, the entire burial was removed en bloc. The giant soil block weighs 80 tons and is 26 by 20 feet in dimensions. It needed two cranes to raise it for transport to the State Office for Monument Preservation laboratory in Stuttgart.

Another large chamber grave from the 6th century B.C. was discovered in 2010 only 320 or so feet from away from this site. It too was removed en bloc (almost exactly the same size a block — 80 tons, 25 by 20 feet) for laboratory excavation and was found to have belonged to an elite Celtic woman who has been dubbed the Princess of Bettelbühl. She was buried with very similar objects — an amber brooch and virtually identical ribbed tubular gold beads.

This results in a variety of questions for archaeologists that will be answered in the coming years. “We want to find out who these splendidly buried people are and how they related to each other. We assume that they are closely related members of the politically leading families who lived around 600 BC. Were in charge of the Heuneburg,” says project manager and regional archaeologist Prof. Dr. Krausse.


Remains of Canadian teen WWI soldier identified

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020

After three years of investigation, the Canadian military has identified the remains of a World War I soldier who was killed in action in 1917. He was Private John Lambert of St. John’s, Newfoundland who was barely 16 years old when he lied about his age to enlist in 1916. His remains and those of three  still-unidentified British soldiers were discovered in April 2016 during an archaeological survey near the town of Langemark, Belgium.

Born on July 10th, 1900, Lambert enlisted on August 14th, 1916. He claimed to be 18 years and three months old, which means he lied about his birth date as well as the year. Two weeks later he was on his way to Scotland to join the 2nd Battalion of The Newfoundland Regiment. There he and his comrades were trained before being sent to the Western Front. He joined the 1st Battalion in the field in June 1917. In August, Lambert’s division was deployed to attack the German lines north of Ypres. The advance was successful and the 29th Division took all of its objects, but John Lambert paid the ultimate price. He died of his wounds received during the advance, dubbed the Battle of Langemarck, on August 16th. He was 17 years and six days old.

He was recorded as killed in action and his family notified, but in the confusion of war, his grave site was lost.

The war diary of the 88th Brigade mentions that a ‘Field Ambulance Relay Post’ was located near Tuffs Farm. This relay post was most likely located within 100 meters of the location where Private Lambert was recovered in 2016. It is believed that he and the other soldiers found with him were buried near this ‘Relay Post’ and for unknown reasons their remains were not found and recovered following the war.

When the remains of the four soldiers were discovered in 2016, one of the artifacts found in the grave was the shoulder title of The Newfoundland Regiment. Armed with this key clue, the Canadian Armed Forces’ Casualty Identification Program set to discovering the identity of the soldier.

Only 16 Newfoundlanders were listed as missing from World War I, which helpfully limited the number of possibilities, but the process was challenging nonetheless. Osteological analysis and DNA retrieved from his bones revealed his age and height. Here John Lambert’s century-old lies put a spanner in the works, because the army’s records for his age obviously did not match the biological evidence.

Extensive historical and genealogical research was able to locate descendants of 13 of the 16 missing Newfoundlanders, and Patricia Egan, Lambert’s 90-year-old niece, provided her DNA to test against his. It was a match.

St. John’s resident Shirlene Murphy, [Egan’s daughter,] said the family kept his memory alive through the years.

“The family dearly loved him,” Murphy said in an interview Tuesday, noting that Lambert was her grandmother’s brother. “He was always talked about. There’s pictures of him in everybody’s house.”

Everyone in the family referred to him as “Uncle Jack.” […]

A padre and the commanding officer of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment officially delivered the news to Eagan on Friday that her uncle had been identified.

“She’s just amazed,” said Murphy, referring to her mother. “The first thing she thought about was her mother and how good it would have been if she was around to see this.”

Private Lambert’s remains will be reburied, probably next summer, in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s New Irish Farm Cemetery in West-Vlaanderen, Belgium. The three British soldiers who were laid to rest with him 103 years ago will be reburied alongside him as well.


Unusual medieval knife found in Scotland

Tuesday, December 1st, 2020

A metal detectorist has discovered an unusual medieval knife in the woods near Penicuik, Midlothian, Scotland. Craig Johnstone theorized that survivors of the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666 had escaped through Deanburn woods and was hoping to find archaeological evidence of it when he came across the much earlier and more precious object. The knife was caked in mud so it looked like a tapered piece of metal topped with a fleur-de-lis. Johnstone thought it might be the top of an iron railing that had broken off.

A friend on the Midlothian council showed it to the council archaeologist and she recognized it as a knife. She recommended (and this sounds a little crazy to me) that they heat it up in an oven at a low temperature with the door open. The heated blade pulled easily out of the sheath along with two pieces of leather that protected the knife from wear in the scabbard.

With a blade only three inches long, the knife is a Skean-Dhu, meaning black or hidden knife in Gaelic. They were concealed carry weapons for noblemen, basically, so small they could be easily hidden in sleeves and waistbands. It is a high-quality blade with a hollow grind (a very sharp beveled cutting edge like a straight razor). The fleur-de-lis handle is bronze which may have originally been gilded.

The first expert to examine the knife thought it dated to the 16th century. Johnstone reported it to local Treasure Trove authorities who at first dismissed it as “relatively modern.” Only after Johnstone had the object radiocarbon dated at his own expense did he get evidence that it was far older than anybody had yet realized. The leather dates to between 1191 and 1273. Armed with this new data, he informed Treasure Trove that his knife was, in fact, relatively medieval and it will now be assessed by the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel.

A Treasure Trove spokeswoman said: “This is a highly unusual object, comprising of a blade with a hilt and a metal scabbard with leather inside. While the leather and blade date from the medieval period, the hilt and scabbard are unusual for the period.

“Treasure Trove are still carrying out investigations into the object. It was due to be x-rayed as part of the investigation process, but this has unfortunately been delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions.”

I’m guessing the fleur-de-lis handle was a later modification. Scotland’s association with the fleur-de-lis goes back to its alliance with France against England in the Hundred Years’ War. When this blade was crafted at the end of the 12th or early 13th century, the French monarchy had only begun to use the fleur-de-lis as a symbol of divine right rule. It wasn’t even on the Arms of France until the 1220s, although it does make an appearance on the seal of the future king Louis VIII in 1211.





December 2020


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