Unique gold brooch prayer amulet found

A Medieval gold annular brooch with prayerful inscriptions has been discovered the parish of Manningford in Wiltshire. It dates to between 1150 and 1350 A.D. and is inscribed with a Latin prayer and initials of a Hebrew phrase believed to have amuletic properties. While this type and age of inscribed brooch has been found before, this one is unique on the archaeological record because the inscription is complete, has no errors (common in an age when artisans were not literate), is engraved on four sides and includes both the prayer and the amuletic initials.

The brooch is composed of a circular frame with a pin attached by a loop. The front and back of the frame is bevelled, giving the ring four surfaces, all of which are inscribed in Lombardic style letters. The inscription on three of the surfaces is the Hail Mary which all together read: + AVE. MARIA. GRACIA. PLENA: DOMINVS: + T: ECVM: BENEDICTATV: INMULIERIBV ET: BENEDI(CT)VS: FRVCTVS: VENTRIS: TVI. AMEN. (Meaning “HAIL MARY FULL OF GRACE THE LORD/ IS WITH THEE/ BLESSED ART THOU AMONGST WOMEN/ AND BLESSED IS THE FRUIT OF THY WOMB. AMEN.”) The S at the end of “MULIERIBV” is missing, not an error, but a deliberate choice because the pin attachment was in the way.

The fourth surface, the reverse inner angle, reads: + A + G + L + A +, the initials of the Hebrew phrase “Atha Gebir Leilam Adonai. (Meaning “Thou art mighty forever, O Lord.”) The AGLA initials were used in the Middle Ages as words of power to protect against illness, particularly fever, and nefarious supernatural forces.

The brooch was discovered by metal detectorist William Nordhoff in March of last year in a freshly plowed field in Pewsey Vale. At first he thought the circular object, dullened by encrusted soil, was a base metal piece, but when he picked it up, he saw that it was gold and that it was covered with writing. He reported the brooch to the Portable Antiquities Scheme finds liaison.

It was declared treasure last month at a coroner’s inquest (a foregone conclusion given that it’s more than 300 years old and made of more than 10% precious metal). The next step is valuation, after which a local museum, in this case likely the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, will have the opportunity to acquire the brooch for the assessed market value.

Asbjørn’s rune marker found in Oslo

The Medieval Park excavation in the historic center of Oslo has unearthed another runic inscription. This is the third rune find in Oslo in a month and a half, the second on wood. (The other was inscribed on a cow or horse bone). Rune finds in Oslo are usually very rare, so this is a relative bonanza. It was found in the same archaeological layer as the falconry figurine which dates it to the 13th century.

The piece of wood is 11.4 cm (4.5 inches) long and wide on the ends with a notch cut in the middle. One the flat side are eight runes, carved in the surface to follow the shape of the stick which means they wood was carved first and the runes added to it.

The runes were translated by Kristel Zilmer, professor of runology at the University of Oslo, who identified it as an owner’s inscription.

“The name is spelled as asbin , and it probably stands for Ásbjǫrn , Asbjørn. The rest of the text in Norse is á mik which means ‘owns me’.” […]

“Owner inscriptions are a common type of medieval inscription,” Zilmer further explains. The texts contain personal names, alone or together with the verb “owner”. Sometimes it is also mentioned what the person owns.

“The label from Oslo uses the expression ‘owns me’. This is a well-known expression in the rune material – the object itself takes the floor. Some other inscriptions that contain the pronoun ‘me’ are master formulas that tell who made the object,” says the professor.

The irregular shape of the wood suggests it was cut to a specific shape for use as a label. The shape might represent something about the owner, a stylized branding device. It would have been mounted to something in order to mark that something as Asbjørn’s property. There are no remains in the excavation layer that might attest to what materials the marker was labelling, but archaeologists believe they may have been trade goods.

Common goods that were traded in medieval Oslo were imported grain, honey and other foods, salt, beer and wine, staples of metal, ceramics and glass, clay pots, baking slabs, millstones and whetstones, imported textiles, etc.

Finds of such markers can help illuminate the city’s trading activity. Maybe the stick was thrown when Asbjørn no longer owned the item? In that case, it is hardly thrown far from where the goods were stored or sold. […]

The town’s artisans had their stalls along the streets and sold products such as shoes and boots, chambers, iron tools, weapons, fine forging products, turned and made vessels, as well as foods such as bread, meat products and fish.

Larger lots of goods were sold directly from the apartment buildings or from the boathouses.

Forensic anthropological analysis done on Bernini marble skull

A marble skull by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Dresden State Art Collections has been subjected to forensic anthropological analysis, an approach made possible by Bernini’s meticulous attention to lifelike anatomical detail in notable contrast to the stylized depictions of skulls and skeletons commonly found in Renaissance and Baroque art. This is the first forensic anthropological examination of a sculpted art work.

Commissioned by Fabio Chigi three days after his election to the papacy as Alexander VII in 1655, the skull was small in dimension but immensely important to Bernini’s career as it marked his return to papal patronage after a long career eclipse in the 1640s when he fell out of favor with Pope Innocent X over family politics and accusations that Bernini had botched construction of the bell towers of Saint Peter’s Basilica. By the end of 1655, Bernini returned to Saint Peter’s in triumph, engaged by Alexander VII to design the square in front of the basilica and the massive colonnade representing the embracing arms of Mother Church.

Bernini’s Death’s Head is a masterpiece of realistic hard stone carving. The life-sized skull was carved in the round from a single piece of white Carrara marble, with the mandible and cranium connected at the temporomandibular joints. It is so anatomically correct that researchers were able to study the carving to determine sex, age, pathology and ethnic origin of the subject just as if it were a real human skull.

“It appears that Bernini used a real biological skull as a model, as he captured details that depicted an adult male of European ancestry,” says corresponding author James T. Pokines, associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology.

Pokines used standard forensic anthropological techniques as would be done with a biological skull. These include scoring morphological traits for sex and ancestry and performing standard cranial measurements with calipers.

They found the skull is so detailed that it includes many precise anatomical features that could be examined in the same manner as a real skull. Bernini even depicted irregularities common to real skulls such as left/right asymmetry, common variations such as in the shape of a suture and tooth loss both before and after death.

That’s only scratching the surface of how much detail Bernini put into this skull. He carved, drilled and polished the stone to include foramina (hole through which nerves and blood vessels pass through bone) and the gaps between the upper and lower jaws. All of this was likely done without his usual preparatory sketches and wax models, simply because there was no point in creating artificial models when he had an actual human skull to use.

There have been repairs over the years. Bernini’s original high-finesse joined mandible had to be reattached at some point with a cement and two iron rods. This “restoration” damaged the skull, drilling into both sides of the mandible causing fractures and marble loss from teeth to cheekbones to nose to eyes.

Bernini’s marble skull isn’t a perfect replica. The foramen magnum in particular stands out because it is significantly larger than it usually is in a human skull. This was a necessary artistic decision rather than an error. The enlarged foramen was an access point through which Bernini was able to hollow out the inside of the skull. He sacrificed the precise accuracy of the dimensions of the foramen, which after all would never be visible when the skull was on display, to achieve greater realism by hollowing out the interior of the skull.

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

Medieval gold rush tools found in Slovakia

Iron tools used to mine gold in the Middle Ages have been discovered in the Malá Magura hills outside the village of Tužina in western Slovakia. This is the first direct archaeological evidence that gold mining took place in Tužina.

Gold was known to have been mined in other villages in the Upper Nitra area. The discovery of gold in the Malá Magura foothills in the 14th century sparked a gold rush. People moved to the area, staked land claims, panned the river, scoured the surface for gold veins and then tunneled down to pursue them. It ultimately proved a shallow find.

The gold rush occurred in the region because nobody knew how much gold there actually was, Hornonitrianske Museum expert Ján Vingárik told TASR.

“There was enough of it, given the findings of golden grains in streams flowing from the hills,” he argued. Germans settled in the area and expected a huge boom to continue for years to come but they were wrong, he added.

“It later turned out the available gold reserves were not as extensive as in volcanic areas.”

Archaeologists believed that Tužina was part of the Upper Nitra gold rush, but it was only recently verified, first by anomalies characteristic of underground mining identified on a digital relief model of the terrain. When the anomalies were inspected, archaeologists found two large mining areas near the source of a stream at the end of a valley. The first area features two tunnels dug one above the other on a slope. At the top of the slope is a ping field where dozens of exploratory pits of different size were dug to seek out veins. The second area is smaller with a single tunnel and only one ping.

Mining irons were discovered in both areas; mining wedges and the remains of an iron lamp were discovered at the second mining area. The finders were operating in the penumbra, using metal detectors without authorization which is a heritage crime in Slovakia. They reported their finds, thankfully.

It is difficult to accurately date the tools and they were pretty much uniform in design and materials for hundreds of years. The lamp is the only tool with a plausible end date: the metal ones stopped being used in the middle of the 16th century, replaced by clay lamps.

“The lamp is a rarity because it shows that miners entered the underground area in Tužiná,” archaeologist Dominika Andreánska from the museum told the TASR newswire, “It complements the overall picture of gold mining in Upper Nitra.”

Late Roman cemetery found outside Mantua

Irrigation works in the town of San Martino dall’Argine outside of Mantua have revealed the presence of a small Late Roman cemetery dating to the early 6th century. Excavations along the canal route have unearthed eleven tombs five feet under the surface. They are contained in a small area along a stretch less than a quarter mile long of the Ca de Marcotti street, but archaeologists believe there may be other tombs on the site.

The graves are arranged in four distinct groupings separated by a hundred feet or so between them. Three of the 11 tombs are in the “capuccina” style, a burial form that was popular in the Late Roman Imperial era for members of the lower classes. They were made by arranging bricks or tegulae (terracotta roof tiles) to line a grave and then tilting larger ones against each other to form a pitched roof structure. The skeletal remains found inside the graves are mostly adults but there were also some children buried there.

As is common in capuccina graves, no grave goods were buried with the dead. Radiocarbon dating of the bones will narrow down when the deceased were buried. Right now, the ca. 500 A.D. dating is an estimate based on the reused brick materials and the construction techniques in the more structured tombs. Borrowed architectural elements may have come from a nearby Roman settlement — the Roman village of Bedriacum was discovered five miles away in 1836 — and may have taken place later than the 6th century as Roman building materials were actively recycled in the early Middle Ages as well.

The tombs have now been removed and transported to a secure location for study and conservation. There’s already talk about creating a museum or archaeological park dedicated to the San Martino ancient cemetery. Excavations will continue in the hope of discovering more of the cemetery and perhaps the settlement that may have been the source of the tile used to craft the tombs.