Archive for August, 2022

Cambridge medieval medical texts digitized

Sunday, August 21st, 2022

The University of Cambridge has embarked on a two-year project to catalogue, digitize and conserve 180 medieval medical manuscripts in the Cambridge Libraries collection. About 8,000 medical recipes spread in manuscripts at the University Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum and in a dozen individual Cambridge colleges will be published for the first time in the Cambridge Digital Library. High-resolution photographs of the recipes will be accompanied by transcriptions of the text and detailed descriptions of the historical context of the recipes and manuscripts.

The books vary widely. There are alchemical treatises, devotional books, legal books and of course medical texts, including personal compilations of home remedies. They are written in Latin, French and Middle English. Most of them to the 14th or 15th centuries with some outliers. The oldest manuscript is 1000 years old. Some are richly illuminated, containing elaborate diagrams of the human body and a prodigious diversity of urine color/smell/taste flowcharts.

The recipes themselves consist of lists of ingredients and instructions for preparation. A great many of them are common plants like herbs and flowers, but when animal ingredients are involved, things get uncomfortably close to that Neo-Babylonian ghost-raising ritual Irving Finkel wanted to try for Halloween a few years ago.

One treatment for gout involves stuffing a puppy with snails and sage and roasting him over a fire: the rendered fat was then used to make a salve. Another proposes salting an owl and baking it until it can be ground into a powder, mixing it with boar’s grease to make a salve, and likewise rubbing it onto the sufferer’s body.

To treat cataracts – described as a ‘web in the eye’ – one recipe recommends taking the gall bladder of a hare and some honey, mixing them together and then applying it to the eye with a feather over the course of three nights.

The medical recipe texts of Cambridge form one of the largest medieval medical writing collections in the UK and well-used by scholars, but only a small percentage of interested have had the opportunity to explore the books in person. Many are too fragile to be freely accessed at all and need emergency conservation before they can even be digitized.

The project team’s transcriptions will open the manuscripts’ contents to health researchers and historians of medicine, enabling keyword searching, surveys of treatments for specific ailments, or quantitative analyses of particular ingredients or preparatory techniques.

Cover-to-cover digitisation will enable researchers to see the recipes in their original setting: where they were written on the page and how they were presented, and whether they were added by different hands or at different times. Conservation will also guarantee continued physical access to the material for future generations of researchers.

“All of the digital images made by the Library’s Digital Content Unit, together with the detailed descriptions and transcriptions produced by the project cataloguers, will be published on the Cambridge Digital Library – making them available to anyone, anywhere in the world with an internet connection,” said Dr Freeman.


Suprise medieval double grave found inside circular ditch

Saturday, August 20th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered an early medieval double grave at the center of a circular ditch in Kirchheim am Neckar, southern Germany. Two plots of land in an area of Kirchheim designated as a cultural monument were excavated in advance of development. The presence of a burial ground was known since the 19th century (hence the designation), but the discovery of a double grave inside a ring ditch was unprecedented.

The double grave was found at the southwest end of the burial ground. The circular mark on the ground is all that remains of a large tumulus. The burials consist of two adjacent wooden chamber graves built over carved rock. One belonged to a woman; one to a man. The graves had both been looted in antiquity, but the tomb raiders only pillaged from the knees up. The areas below the knees were untouched, and the looters really missed out.

Below the foot of the buried man were a large ornate bone comb, a ceramic pot, silver sheet bands, a glass tumbler, horse bridles and a bronze vessel filled with organic material and animal bone and a large egg-like object beneath a ceramic bowl. A gold coin was also found in the dead man’s mouth as an obolus [, also known as Charon’s obol, a coin to pay for passage to the underworld].

The remains of a decapitated horse were buried just outside the ring ditch. The presence of horse bridles in the man’s grave suggests the horse was a companion burial.

The woman’s burial was richly furnished as well, despite having been looted. Grave goods found in her grave include a pearl necklace, a gold pendant inlaid with almandine garnets, a disc brooch, a weaving sword, scissors, a glass beaker and a chatelaine with a decorative disc and a Cypraea snail shell hanging from it. These were high value objects, jewelry and household goods alike. The Cypraea was imported from the Indian Ocean and was a very expensive charm to hang from a belt.

The excavation of the two properties found 22 more graves, all of them simple inhumations without funerary offerings. These were the kinds of graves archaeologists expected to find at the site, comparable to the ones discovered there in the past. The occupants of the double grave were set apart in the burial ground, separated from the hoi polloi both in location and in the distinctive grandeur of their burials.


Rare Neolithic, Migration Period graves found near Danube

Friday, August 19th, 2022

Rare graves from the Neolithic and early medieval Migration Period have been discovered in Tuttlingen, in southwestern Germany near the Danube Sinkhole. A preventative archaeology excavation at the site of a planned rainwater retention basin unearthed a Stone Age grave of the Corded Ware culture containing grave goods including a characteristic pot of the type that gave the culture its name, and dozens of Migration Period (ca. 375-568 A.D. ) graves containing weapons and jewelry.

Only one Neolithic grave has been found so far — Corded Ware culture graves are rare in southwestern Germany — but archaeologists did discover the remains of a prehistoric settlement. The grave contained a corded ware beaker, decorated at the neck by winding a rope around it when the clay was still wet to create a dimpled effect.  It also contained a stone axe with a neat hole in the middle where the handle was once mounted and a flint blade. The Corded Ware grave dates to the 3rd millennium B.C.

The Migration Period cemetery is large with about 140 burials, and many of them are richly furnished. This was a period of mass movement of people throughout Europe in the wake of the collapse of Roman power. They usually travelled in tribes of about 10,000-20,000 lead by a warlord until they found a place they wanted to settle. The cemetery dates to the later Migration Period.

“Most burials contain grave goods such as weapons, e.g. swords, lances, shields, and jewelry such as glass beads, earrings, belts or belt pendants,” said Dr. Andreas Haasis-Berner, responsible area officer at LAD, today (August 18, 2022) presenting the current results in Gutmadingen together with the excavation company and the city. Bone combs or a drinking glass are special features. Based on these grave goods, the burial ground can be dated to the 6th century.


Avocadoes foiled by largest megalithic complex in Spain

Thursday, August 18th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered the largest megalithic complex in Spain near Heulva, on the southwestern border with Portugal. An extraordinary profusion of more than 500 menhirs, dolmens, stone cists, circular enclosures and standing stones have been documented at the site, plus associated finds like extraction areas, engravings, dry stone structures and quartzite hammers. Samples from the site are still in the process of being dated, but preliminary estimates are that the first vertical stones were erected between the Middle Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age, from the 5th millennium B.C. to the 2nd. The sacred spaces were then reused over the centuries.

The megaliths were found in 2018 during a survey of a 600-hectare farm whose owner wanted to plant avocadoes. Andalusian authorities would only grant a permit for the avocado plan on condition that archaeologists get to explore the site first. Several megaliths have been found in the area before and previous farming of the land had significantly altered the landscape, so archaeologists were dispatched to perform an intensive surface survey before the estate was further transformed by agricultural use.

The team recorded all of the visible megaliths and documented four delimited groupings: a group of dolmens, a set of menhirs and two stone circles. They documented 526 megaliths in different shapes and sizes, most of them erected close to the outcroppings where the builders had sourced the stone.

One of the most striking things was finding such diverse megalithic elements grouped together in one location and discovering how well preserved they were, said Primitiva Bueno, co-director of the project and a prehistory professor at Alcalá University, near Madrid.

“Finding alignments and dolmens on one site is not very common. Here you find everything all together – alignments, cromlechs and dolmens – and that is very striking,” she said, hailing the site’s “excellent conservation”.

An alignment is a linear arrangement of upright standing stones along a common axis, while a cromlech is a stone circle, and a dolmen is a type of megalithic tomb usually made of two or more standing stones with a large flat capstone on top.

Most of the menhirs were grouped into 26 alignments and two cromlechs, both located on hilltops with a clear view to the east for viewing the sunrise during the summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes, the researchers said.

Located on a hill above the Guadiana River, La Torre-La Janera is the highest altitude site in the area, so these megalithic groupings would have been highly visible in the landscape as well as having a fine view for solar ceremonies.

The avocado plantation has been officially laid to rest. Instead, the site is undergoing a rigorous six-year project of excavation, study and conservation that is scheduled to run through 2026.


Florence Baptistery apse, wall mosaics restored

Wednesday, August 17th, 2022

After five years of restoration, the eight internal walls of the Baptistery of Florence adorned with three different colors of marble inlay and magnificent mosaics have been liberated from scaffolding and can be seen again in all their newly-revived glory.

The Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the governing body that administers Florence’s cathedral complex which includes both the Duomo and the Baptistery, began a comprehensive restoration of the internal walls of the Baptistery at the end of 2017 following repairs to the external walls and roof. The project was enormously complex. There are 12,000 square feet of marble inlay surfaces, more than 2,000 square feet of mosaics and more than 1,000 square feet of gold leaf.

The parietal mosaics were created in the 14th century as extensions of the motifs and pictorial style of the exceptional mosaics applied to the interior of the dome, which was still ongoing when work began on the apse.

The mosaics of the scarsella [the apse] differ from the parietal ones both in the narrative complexity and for the execution technique. In fact, in these mosaics, extremely minute tesserae were used and an extraordinary chromatic variety of glass pastes and other precious materials including coral – which to date does not appear to have been used elsewhere in mosaic art – branches or in cross-sections that form microscopic circular or teardrop shaped tesserae.

If the mosaics on the other seven internal facades of the Baptistery represent prophets, holy bishops and cherubs, those in the scarsella stage a rich iconographic program. In the vault the mirror images of the Madonna and the Baptist seated on the throne are represented, flanked by four telamons that support the large central wheel. This is divided into eight spokes, occupied by solemn figures of biblical patriarchs and prophets who foretold the coming of Christ, symbolized in the lamb in the center of the wheel with an epigraph, which translated from Latin reads “Here is almighty God indicated by the meek lamb”. Other figures of prophets appear in the intrados of the triumphal arch, while on the external ring there are represented busts of Apostles, Evangelists and Saints flanking the Baptist in the center.

The vault and triumphal arch of the apse and the gallery of the matroneum were clad in marble originally, so when officials decided to install mosaics there too after the completion of the dome mosaics, Florence’s mosaicists had to invent a new technique to apply mosaics onto marble veneers. They used bespoke hollow terracotta tiles, each made to specific measurements, that were then cut and mounted to the marble walls with iron linchpins. Even the mortar was completely customized, closer to an adhesive than a traditional mastic.

The unique approach and materials posed an enormous challenge to conservators. The team started by collecting data, performing the first diagnostic analyses of the parietal mosaics ever done. They found evidence of the original techniques used to install the mosaics, questionable later repairs and materials like traces of gold leaf on one of the column capitals that suggests all of the capitals were originally gilded.

The restoration was repeatedly interrupted and delayed by the pandemic and ultimately cost 2.6 million euros, but that hasn’t deterred the Opera from moving forward with an even more complex project: the restoration of the mosaics on the Baptistery’s octagonal dome. They have designed a new restoration scaffold system of horizontal platforms supported by a central column. This will allow restorers to shift upwards as they focus on new surfaces while still keeping the dome visible from the ground.


169 gold rings found in Copper Age grave

Tuesday, August 16th, 2022

A prehistoric hoard that is unique on the European archaeological record has been unearthed near Oradea in western Romania. Archaeologists discovered the Copper Age grave of a woman during construction of a new highway connector this spring. It contained 160 gold rings, two gold beads, 800 bone beads and a multi-spiral copper bracelet. Before this discovery, the total number of gold artifacts found in the entire Carpathian Basin (consisting of large parts of modern Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria) was only 150 pieces. That figure has now more than doubled in one fell swoop.

Detail of gold rings with one twisted. Photo courtesy Ţării Crisurilor Museum.The remains are currently undergoing radiocarbon dating, but the objects mark the woman as member of the local Tiszapolgár culture which flourished in Eastern and Central Europe between 4500 and 4000 B.C. Given the exceptional luxury of her funerary jewelry, she must have been someone of very high status.

The gold rings were found at the head of the burial and would have adorned her hair. Their total weight exceeds 200 grams (.44 pounds), which is an enormous amount considering it was alluvial gold, ie, painstakingly separated from the sand of a river via a washing process rather than mined in large quantities from veins of ore.

The gold, beads and bracelet are in the process of being cleaned and conserved. Researchers are hoping to be able to determine the geographic origin of the gold, to pinpoint if it was local or imported. Scientists in Romania and the Netherlands will help perform further analyses including DNA extraction. When studies and conservation are completed, the hoard will be exhibited to the public at the Ţării Crisurilor Museum in Oradea.


Shrimp fishermen haul in wooden figurehead

Monday, August 15th, 2022

Fishermen casting their nets off the coast of the Wadden Islands, Texel, the Netherlands, hauled in not the delicious shellfish they expected, but a carved wooden head in exceptional condition. The crew of the shrimp cutter Wieringer 22 caught the sculpture on Tuesday, August 2. They named the head Barry and posted him on social media where he garnered an instant following.

Acting on advice from archaeologists, the crew placed the head in an eel tub filled with sea water to keep the wood from drying out and deteriorating while the ship was still out shrimping. On Thursday, August 4, the Wieringer 22 came into port where it was greeted by excited archaeologists.

The head is made of oak, which would under normal circumstances be susceptible to the depredations of shipworm, but the sculpture managed to avoid this fate by embedding itself in the sea floor after the wreck. The sediment prevented marine organisms from making a meal of the figurehead and kept it from rotting away. That coincidence is the only reason it is in such impeccable condition.

Michiel Bartels, a municipal archaeologist for that region of the Netherlands, told the Leeuwarder Courant that he believed the “very special discovery” came from a warship, possibly during the Eighty Years’ War, which stretched from the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s.

Bartels told the outlet that the man in the carving was wearing a specific kind of headgear called a Phrygian cap. “This hat symbolizes freedom and independence,” he said. “The Phyrigians were enslaved by the Romans. Slaves were shaved bald. When released from slavery, [Phyrigians] wore a cap to hide their baldness and signify their freedom. During the Eighty Years’ War, the symbol came back as a sign of independence.”

Experts believe that Barry – as the crew members called the figure – adorned the stern of the 17th-century ship. “The most important thing is to conserve the sculpture and examine it,” says Ad Geerdink, director of the Westfries Museum. – Many ships from the Dutch East India Company (VOC) rest at the bottom of the Wadden Sea. It is too early to say what kind of unit the sculpture is from. Figures of this type, placed at the stern of ships, were to impress and speak about the origin of the vessel. It was such a frenzy at sea. And this figure fits well with this habit.

The hat could lead researchers in another direction, away from the political symbolism of the 80 Years’ War and towards a profession: whaling. The Rijksmuseum has a similar woolen cap in its collection. It was one of many discovered in the graves of 185 Dutch whalers and whale oil workers in the Spitsbergen archipelago in Norway. The caps not only kept the sailors and workers warm in the frigid climate, but were markers of identity, each knitted in different colors and patterns. The connection between man and hat was so pronounced not even death could sever it, and many of the Dutchmen were buried wearing their hats.


2nd Roman bridge found over Aniene tributary

Sunday, August 14th, 2022

Just a few months after an extremely rare Rebuplican-era Roman bridge was discovered over the Fosso di Pratolungo tributary of the Aniene River in northeastern Rome, a second, much later bridge has been found less than 100 feet away. Archaeologists have been excavating the route of a planned enlargement of the Via Tiburtina within the municipality of Rome. They found the recently-discovered bridge on the opposite bank of the tributary from the Republican bridge. Its precise date is unknown, but it is from the Imperial era.

The bridge on the ancient Via Tiburtina crossed the Fosso di Pratolungo right before its confluence with the Aniene.  Excavations brought to light the central span of the bridge, a rounded arch made out of massive blocks of travertine. They were laid dry, using no mortar, joined together by rectangular projections on one block fitted into matching rectangular grooves on the adjacent block. The exterior was then reinforced with a layer of concrete.

The arch is missing its keystone. Archaeologists believe it was likely cadged in the Middle Ages when the bridge was partially demolished and enclosed by two walls 10 feet high coated with a layer of plaster on the exterior. The walls appear to have supported a ramp used to cross the tributary.

Researchers are investigating the connection between this bridge and the earlier one from the 2nd or 3rd century B.C.

The analysis of the historical cartography of this area highlights the convergence of several branches of the Fosso and of small tributaries, the course of which varied according to the eras. The stratigraphy then highlighted the remarkable alluvial layers that attest that the bridge crossed the Fosso at a critical point, subject since Roman times to frequent flooding and swamping phenomena.

The remains of the bridge will be protected and reburied as they are 13 feet below street level inside an aquifer and therefore cannot be moved. The expansion of the highway will not damage the archaeological material.


17th c. wreck laden with lime found on Lübeck riverbed

Saturday, August 13th, 2022

Maritime archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 17th century trading vessel on the bed of the Trave River near the Baltic port city of Lübeck, Germany. The ship’s remains were first spotted in February 2020 during a routine survey of the Trave’s shipping channels when sonars detected an anomaly on the riverbed at a depth of 36 feet. Divers were finally able to explore the site in August 2021, and they alerted Lübeck cultural heritage authorities that they’d identified a likely shipwreck. Archaeologists from the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology at Kiel University were commissioned to examine the wreck site in detail in November 2021.

Over the last eight months, archaeologists have made 13 dives for a total of 464 minutes, photographing, filming and mapping all of the site. There were no cannons, so researchers were able to eliminate the possibility that it was a warship. They determined it was a sailing vessel carrying at least 150 large barrels of cargo. About 70 of them were found in their original location on the ship. The other 80 were adjacent to them. That means the ship sank straight down and stayed upright. It never listed or capsized.

The wooden planking was dated to around 1650, the late Hanseatic period when Lübeck was a center of maritime trade in northern Europe. This type of medium-sized sailing ship was a workhorse of the Baltic Sea trade network, but equivalent wrecks have only been found in the eastern Baltic Sea region. This is the first one found in the western Baltic.

The wood of the cargo barrels has rotted away, but happy archaeological coincidence, we know what they contained: lime, because it hardens to a rock-hard solid in contact with water, so while the barrels disintegrated, the cargo has survived for centuries. Lime was a key building material used to produce mortar and plaster in the Middle Ages and Early Modern era. The ship was probably loaded up with lime at a Scandinavian point of origin and then sailed for Lübeck but didn’t quite make it.

The wreck was found in the middle of the canal at a bend in the river which was notoriously challenging to navigate. It’s not clear what caused the vessel to sink. Archaeologists believe it may have run aground at the ben and sprang a leak. It sank on an even keel (probably thanks to being so effectively ballasted by its heavy lime cargo) and landed upright on the riverbed.

The remains of the ship and cargo are under threat today from erosion and shipworm. It is only a matter of time before it disappears completely, so Kiel University researchers are working the City of Lübeck to protect the wreck. The default posture is in situ preservation whenever possible, but with the rapid deterioration of this wreck, experts are looking at the possibility of salvaging the timbers and cargo and preserving them on terra firma.

Raising the ship from the riverbed will give archaeologists a chance to fully investigate the hull and its construction, and perhaps identify its origin. “The salvage will probably also uncover previously unknown parts of the wreck that are still hidden in the sediment,” [the head of Lübeck’s archaeology department Manfred] Schneider said, such as rooms for the ship’s crew in the stern that may still hold everyday objects from the 17th century.

Although Lübeck was a center for Baltic trade during the Hanseatic period, very few authentic maritime objects from that time had survived, Schneider said, so the discovery of almost an entire ship from this era is remarkable. “We have something like a time capsule that transmits everything that was on board at that moment,” he said. “It throws a spotlight on the trade routes and transport options at the end of the Hanseatic period.”

Here is raw video taken of the wreck during a dive:


Olmec reliefs of “contortionist” rulers found in Mexico

Friday, August 12th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered two carved reliefs from the late Olmec period (900-400 B.C.) in Villahermosa, Tabasco, southeastern Mexico. The reliefs are carved from large round slabs of limestone 4.6 feet in diameter and weigh more than 1,500 pounds apiece. Each relief features a man wearing a headdress formed out of four corncobs, his face contorted in a grimace — mouths open and turned down, eyes wide. In the center of the headdress is an “Olmec cross,” a glyph of a jaguar that was a marker of elite status. The faces take up almost all of the real estate, bordered by footprints on the sides and arms crossed underneath.

The Olmecs are the earliest known major Mesoamerican civilization. They held sway over what is now Mexico’s southern Gulf Coast region from around 1600 B.C. until their extinction (for reasons unknown) in 400 B.C. Olmec culture is most famously associated with the colossal helmeted heads carved out of massive basalt boulders. The recently-discovered reliefs have features in common with the iconic heads.

Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) was alerted to the existence of the reliefs in June 2019 by an anonymous tipster. They were in a private home in Villahermosa. After examination, INAH experts confirmed their authenticity. The homeowner said he had found them while leveling agricultural land on his farm in Tenosique.  (A very similar circular relief was found in Tenosique in 2000.) Archaeologists plan to survey the find site in hopes of narrowing down the date of the carvings.

Among the reliefs known from the late Olmec horizon (all from informal excavations), when La Venta emerged as the guiding center of the nuclear area of ​​this civilization, five of them represent figures of “contortionists”, one of which comes from Balancán and is exposed in the Regional Museum of Anthropology, in Villahermosa; another one, from Ejido Emiliano Zapata, and is in the Museum of the Archaeological Site of Pomoná; and three, from Tenosique, including the one registered in 2000 and these last two.

“The five monuments have in common the representation of large faces, possibly of local rulers, who also practiced contortionism not in a playful sense, but ritual. By adopting the position in which they appear portrayed –which reduces the irrigation and oxygenation of the blood to the brain–, the characters reached trance states in divinatory ceremonies, and that conferred powers on them.

“It is possible that these faces evolved and derived in the Mayan ajaw altars , such as those of the Caracol site, in Belize, which tells us about the permanence of this theme for more than three centuries, already for the Early Classic and Late Classic periods. (495 to 790 AD). The word ajaw means ‘he who shouts’, ‘he who commands’, ‘he who orders’; and in these Mayan monuments the mouth stands out, a feature that must come from Olmec times, especially from these circular reliefs of ‘contortionists’ that are portraits of local chiefs”.

The reliefs will be transferred to the Museum of the Archaeological Site of Pomoná in Tenosique, which will then become home to the lion’s share of Olmec “contortionist” reliefs.






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