Runic/Latin inscription on church wall is legal debt

An inscription in both runic and Latin script on the wall of the Sønder Asmindrup Church near Holbæk on the eastern Danish island of Zealand has been identified as a legally valid proof of debt from 800 years ago.

The inscription consists of two lines of text. The top line is written with runes in Old Danish and was deciphered in 1909. It reads “Toke took silver on loan from Ragnhild.” The bottom line was written in both runes and Latin letters in an idiosyncratic way, so scholars were not able to decipher it.

Until now. National Museum of Denmark runologist Lisbeth Imer worked with medieval Danish document expert Anders Leegaard to translate the second line. It reads: “2. May in the year of salvation 1210.” That means Toke’s loan from Ragnhild was dated, and that makes the inscription a legally enforceable document, unique on the Danish archaeological record and extremely rare internationally. Only three similar examples are known: a road use contract on a parish church on Gotland, Sweden, a land sale on a wall in St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine, and a judgement on a debt case in the church of Saint Panteleimon in Galich, Russia.

Corresponding legal documents are typically only preserved on parchment and from the very highest social strata – often only because they are found preserved in a younger copy. The new discovery shows that there was a widespread writing culture in the Middle Ages.

“Until now, we have had almost no knowledge of how agreements were made, or to what extent writing was used. Our knowledge of it has, so to speak, been in the dark, and there have been only a few and scattered testimonies about the use of writing. The inscription in Sønder Asmindrup shows that written agreements were made among what we must believe were ordinary farmers at an early stage in the Middle Ages – we simply did not know that before,” says Lisbeth Imer.

It’s also a unique testament to how commoners in a rural parish crafted legal contracts comparable to the kind of work done by professional scribes for the elites. The promissory note was in two writing systems with Roman date suggests it was authored by someone educated in at least two languages. This was likely the priest or other clergyman associated with the parish church.

At court, people usually wrote in Latin and with letters, while church inscriptions are mainly written in the mother tongue and with runes. And where the king’s documents almost all have to do with the state’s interests, the inscription in Sønder Asmindrup deals with ordinary farmers out in the countryside.

“Precisely that makes it so interesting, because it shows that writing was probably more used and widespread than we have otherwise thought. The promissory note is a serious use of writing, it wasn’t just a name scrawled on the wall for fun. It shows that a fairly advanced use of writing also took place out in the countryside, and it is not something we have seen such good examples of before,” says Lisbeth Imer.

Ancient quarry found in Malta

An ancient stone quarry has been discovered during work by the Water Services Corporation between the town of Żejtun and Marsaxlokk Bay in southeastern Malta.

Because the site is close to the megalithic multi-period temple complex of Tas-Silġ, an archaeologist from the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage was present to monitor the trenching work. He recognized the large rectangular cut blocks were archaeological remains and notified the Superintendence. The trenching works were stopped while archaeologists excavated the find.

Still bearing visible toolmarks, the stone was in the process of being cut into ashlar blocks when the quarrying work ceased. The sides of the rectangular stones were cut, but the bottoms were still connected to the bedrock. Unfortunately no associated objects or remains were discovered to help date the quarry. Based on the ashlars that had not been fully cut out of the bedrock and the type of quarry that it is, archaeologists believe it was active in the classical era (5th c. B.C. – 5th c. A.D.).

Marie Antoinette’s poodle sells for 56 times pre-sale estimate

An 18th century portrait of a small dog believed to be Marie Antoinette’s toy poodle Pompon sold at auction on Friday for $279,400, 56 times the high pre-sale estimate of $5,000. This was totally unexpected, as several versions of this portrait exist and none of them have generated the kind of explosive interest that sparks an auction floor bidding war. Fifteen people were bidding against each other for this piece, inexplicably driving the price up into the stratosphere.

The painter was Jacques Barthélémy Delamarre who was active in Paris in the last quarter of the 18th century through the early 19th century. Very little is known about him. The only biographical information with a paper trail about him is that he was admitted to the Académie Saint-Luc, a Paris painters and sculptors guild, in 1777.

He made several versions of this dog portrait. There are differences in the grooming style, the backgrounds and the accessories in the room. One sitting on a red velvet bed sold for 11,875 euros, 10 times its very low estimate, at Sotheby’s in 2020. That same version sold for just a hair above estimate in Paris in 2021.

There is no evidence that Marie Antoinette commissioned the comparatively unknown Delamarre to paint her pooch. There’s no evidence that the portrait was even made in the dog’s lifetime, nor in the tragic queen’s. Not even the dog’s breed is certain. It has been billed variously as a Löwchen, a King Charles Cavalier spaniel and as a Bichon Frisé/Maltese.

If this is a portrait of one of Marie Antoinette’s many dogs, it was probably painted after her death as a souvenir for people with nostalgic feelings for the decapitated monarchs. That would explain why he cranked out several versions of the pup.

So the feeding frenzy for the one that just sold cannot really be explained by the quality or backstory of the painting itself. My theory is the dog looks so meme-like with his fluff-up-top, shaved-down-below style that bidders lost their minds a little.

Embalming workshops unearthed at Saqqara

Two ancient embalming workshops, one for humans and one for animals, have been discovered at the necropolis of Saqqara southeast of Cairo. The workshops, found beneath a hill near the temple of the cat goddess Bastet, date to the 30th dynasty (380-343 B.C.) and the Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30 B.C.).

The workshops were rectangular in overall shape and divided into rooms that were used for different stages of the mummification process. The animal mummification workshop was made of mud and stone floors. Five stone beds were still inside the room, used to embalm the bodies of sacred animals . Mummification tools and materials were also found in the space.

The human mummification workshop had stone beds as well, albeit larger. They are 6.5 feet long by 20 inches wide. Bodies were laid out on the beds for the mummification process — the cleaning of the body, the removal of organs, the application of embalming fluids. A number of materials, including wooden stirring sticks, rolls of linens, clay pots containing nitrate salts and black resin were found in the workshop.

The team also discovered two tombs, one from the Old Kingdom, one from the New. The New Kingdom tomb belonged to an 18th Dynasty priest named Men Kheber. He died around 1400 B.C. Vividly-colored paintings in his tomb depict the deceased engaged in different functions.

Inscriptions in the Old Kingdom tomb identify its owner as Ne Hesut Ba, 5th Dynasty head scribe and priest of Horus and Maat who died in around 2400 B.C. In addition to his duties as priest and scribe, Ne Hesut Ba was in charge of digging waterways for the pharaoh. An alabaster statue depicting him was found inside a niche of the tomb, and wall paintings depict him engaged in religious rituals and activities from daily life.

Earliest Iron Age house in Attica found

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of the earliest Iron Age house in Attica at the archaeological site of Thorikos 40 miles south of Athens. The structure first emerged in a 2019 excavation that uncovered the corner of a wall. Archaeologists first thought it was the corner of a tomb, but a wider excavation found no burial, but rather a building, likely a dwelling, from the 10th or 9th century B.C.

Over the past year, the scientists continued to research the extent of the building and identified five to six rooms. In the largest room there were still numerous pebbles in association, which indicate a paved courtyard. An analysis of inorganic and organic features of the rock confirmed a use from about 950 to 825 BC.

“Existing grinding stones for grain indicate a function as a residential building. The differentiated structure of the residential building speaks for either a complex society or an already developed social hierarchy,” says [Prof. Dr. Johannes Bergemann, Director of the Archaeological Institute at the University of Göttingen]. “Scientific analyzes will show whether there was animal breeding here and whether the silver ore typical of the area was mined at this time.”

Inhabited since the 4th millennium B.C., Thorikos was an early center of mining starting from the Neolithic era, first just lead in the 3rd millennium B.C. and then silver from 1500 B.C. Mycenaean underground beehive tombs from that era have been found at the site, and there is material evidence of Mycenaean mining operations at Thorikos dating to the 12th century B.C.

Thorikos became part of the polis of Athens along with the rest of Attica in around 900 B.C., so the newly-discovered structured dates to the early years of the Athenian synoikismos, the process of combining many small polities into one powerful city-state.

With funding now secured from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the University of Göttingen team in cooperation with the University of Ghent will be able to complete the excavation over the next two years to unearth the full extent of the building. Discoveries will then be studied and analyzed.