Rare 13th c. tile floor on display under new shelter

April 11th, 2016

An extremely rare surviving 13th century tile floor at Cleeve Abbey in Somerset is now back on display under a new, state-of-the-art shelter. The oak shelter will protect the 40 x 16-foot section of pavement from the elements, something its predecessor, a tent, could not do.

Cleeve Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded by William de Roumare, Earl of Lincoln, in 1198. Populated by only 12 monks in the beginning, by the mid-13th century there was a cruciform church, a cloister, chapter house, sacristy and dormitory. The refectory was constructed in the second half of the 1200s, probably around 1270, and it was paved with expensive polychrome encaustic tiles nine inches square. Each tile is decorated with heraldic designs. The arms of several aristocratic benefactors of the monastery were kiln-baked into the floor tiles, including the chevrons of the earls of Gloucester from the de Clare family, the lion rampant of the earls of Cornwall, the double-headed eagle of Richard of Cornwall, second son of King John of Magna Carta fame, who bribed his way into election as King of the Romans (ie, King of what would become Germany) in 1257, and the three white lions of the Royal Coat of Arms representing monastery patron King Henry III, Richard’s brother. Archaeologists believe they were manufactured by a tilery in Gloucestershire and installed to celebrate the marriage of Edmund, 2nd Earl of Cornwall, to Margaret de Clare in 1272.

In the 15th century, the old refectory was demolished and a new, larger refectory was built just to its north. The old tile floor was not reused elsewhere (the usual practice when dealing with luxurious features like these tiles), but buried, keeping it in situ in its original configuration virtually undamaged for 400 years. Thanks to its hiding place, the floor made it through the Dissolution of the Monasteries unscathed while the abbey church was demolished. Henry VIII sold the abbey property and other structures, stripping any valuable architectural features for individual sale. The abbey became a farm, and most of the buildings are still standing today because of it.

The Cleeve Abbey tiled pavement is the only large example of a decorated medieval refectory floor in Britain. The fact that it survived with its original placement still intact makes it a rarity of international significance. A smaller piece of the 13th century church floor was also discovered at Cleeve Abbey, and while it too is made of colorful encaustic tiles, they have been relain and look like a patchwork quilt now.

The old refectory floor was rediscovered in 1876. To protect it for future generations, the floor was reburied until 1951 when it was again exposed and displayed to the public. It was covered each winter to save it from inclement weather and uncovered during the summer months so tourists could view it.

In the 1990s, tests by English Heritage found that the tiles were dangerous deteriorating from their exposure to the elements. Thermal stress was damaging the protective glaze surface and eroding the detailed patterns in the clay, while microbes and high salt gnawed away the priceless pavement. In an attempt to prevent further damage, English Heritage installed a marquee tent over the floor tiles, which helped keep the sun’s rays from hitting the tiles directly but was only a temporary solution while they worked on a permanent one.

Last year construction began on a new shelter made of louvred oak slats which allow light to enter the space for optimal viewing, but keep direct sunlight from beating down on the tiles. There’s a ventilation system which keeps the temperatures inside the enclosure stable at all times. Visitors can enjoy the floor comfortably from seating and viewing platforms.

The new shelter opened on Good Friday, March 25th, 2016, and will be open daily through October 21st, 2016, which is when Cleeve Abbey closes for the winter. It will open again next spring.

17th c. treasure hidden during uprising found in Bulgaria

April 10th, 2016

A treasure of silver jewels buried in the 17th century has been found near the northwestern Bulgarian city of Montana. The hoard was discovered by local residents who very responsibly reported the find to the National Museum of History in Sofia. There’s a tiara, two forehead bands, two ear tabs, connectors between the headpieces and the ear tabs, a pair of earrings and two rings. They are all made of silver and are of very high quality, decorated with expensive, highly skilled techniques including filigree, granulation, niello, gold leaf and a green glass-like mass that is probably enamel. The objects were placed in a leather purse, surviving fragments of which were found at the site.

The jewelry is almost certainly local work. The area was known for its very fine gold and silversmiths. The work of the Chiprovtsi smiths was famous all over Eastern Europe for its complexity and delicacy. They had access to a steady supply of precious raw materials, thanks to local silver ore deposits which were extensively mined in the 16th and 17th centuries.

After the Ottoman conquest of the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1396, some areas were granted the right of Christian self-government, among them the village of Chiprovtsi and neighboring towns. When silver ore was found in the region in the second half of the 15th century, the population of the villages swelled with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Albanians and German miners while the old Catholic nobility appears to have ruled virtually undisturbed with only a token Ottoman representation in the municipal government. Chiprovtsi was closely linked to the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy as well. The official residence of the Catholic archbishops of Bulgaria was Chiprovtsi’s Monastery of St. Mary.

The mix of peoples, strong Catholic leadership and quasi-autonomy of the region spurred residents to seek to overthrown the Ottoman Yoke. The Chiprovtsi Uprising, a rebellion of Roman Catholic (and some Eastern Orthodox) Bulgarians against Ottoman rule, was precipitated by Austria’s capture of Belgrade from the Turks on September 6th, 1688. Chiprovtsi Catholics had been trying to induce the monarchies of western Europe to take Bulgaria from the Ottomans for more than four decades, coming very close several times to triggering elaborate invasion plans that ultimately fell through. When Belgrade fell to the Austrians, the Chiprovtsi rebels thought that after so many false starts, the moment had finally come. Hopeful that the Austrians would send reinforcements to support the uprising, extend their victory east and ultimately liberate all of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule, the insurrectionists rose up and fought the Ottomans and their Magyar allies.

It did not go well. There was no coordination between Austrian and Bulgarian forces, and the Turks handily won the military encounters. The decisive battle took place near Montana, then called Kutlovitsa, in October of 1688. The Ottomans won decisively. They captured Chiprovtsi on October 18th and razed it to the ground, killing almost everyone and enslaving whoever survived. While a much-reduced guerilla resistance continued for a few months, the Austrians never came and much of the remaining population fled west to the Danube or north to Wallachia. Archbishop Peter Knezevic led the emigration to Wallachia. Few Christians remained in the northwest and the Ottomans ruled directly, stripping the Bulgarian nobility of their old privileges and political power.

The National Museum of History experts believe the cache of silver jewels was a family fortune buried in the turbulent days of the Chiprovtsi Uprising in the fall of 1688. Since almost everyone in the area was killed in battle, executed, enslaved or fled, there was nobody left to dig up the treasure.

Tiny Arabic chess piece found in museum dig

April 9th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the back yard of the Wallingford Museum on High Street in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, have unearthed a tiny medieval chess piece. At first museum curator thought it was a figurine of a cat, but once it was cleaned, they recognized the artifact as an Arabic chess piece carved from the tip of an antler.

[Curator Judy Dewey] said: [...] “It is one of only about 50 medieval chess pieces found in England and, at only 21.7mm high, it is unique in being the smallest medieval Arabic chess piece known in the country.

“The chess piece was made from the tip of an antler in the 12th or 13th century and is highly decorated with traditional roundels – most other such pieces are at least double the size.

This is a bishop so the other pieces in the set must have been really tiny – it may have been part of a travelling set.”

The museum’s main building was once Wallingford Priory, a Benedictine abbey that was suppressed by Cardinal Wolsey and of which only the foundations remain today, all of them underground. Wolsey secured a papal bull ordering the dissolution of Wallingford and 30 other small monasteries deemed to be rife with corruption. Funds raised from the dissolution would go to one of Wolsey’s pet projects: the construction of Cardinal College at the University of Oxford. The priory was surrendered in 1525 to notary John Allen, as witnessed by Thomas Cromwell, then Wolsey’s right hand man. It took three more years before the priory was finally suppressed for good. On July 6th, 1528, the monastery and its lands were formally transferred from the crown to Cardinal Wolsey for the construction of his college at Oxford.

Before the demise of the abbey, visitors to the castle of Wallingford were sometimes housed in the priory. Chess was deemed a game for the nobility and educated classes. Any one of those visitors might have owned a portable set, or the monks themselves may have played.

Chess was introduced to Europe from Persia by the Islamic Arabian empire, likely through Spain. The Norman French brought it with them to England after the Conquest in the 11th century. Within a hundred years the original Arabic designs and names of the pieces were altered to forms more recognizable to the elite players of northern Europe. The Vizir became the Queen, the Fars (horse) became the Knight and the Al-Fil, the war elephant, became the Bishop. The look of the pieces shifted from the non-figural representation of the Islamic tradition to the people and characters we know today.

The piece discovered at Wallingford is a war elephant, aka the future Bishop. The round protrusions represent tusks. To Christian European eyes those bumps were reminiscent of a bishop’s mitre, which is how the war elephant became a high-ranking clergyman. The piece likely dates to before the mid-12th century when the figural designs set in, increasing the game’s appeal and popularity across Christendom.

The chess piece is now on display at the Wallingford Museum. Digging is scheduled to resume this July, and archaeologists are crossing their fingers and toes that they might find more pieces from the set. It’s a long shot, however.

18th c. marine chronometer found in Rhode Island collection

April 8th, 2016

On March 3rd of this year, the Newport Historical Society (NHS) in Rhode Island announced via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that staff members were on a secret mission in the UK. A follow-up image taken at the Pitt Rivers Museum was posted the next day, and then a third photo showed a gloved hand working on what looks like a timepiece.

The secret mission, it turns out, was to send Ingrid Peters to the Royal Observatory, Royal Museums Greenwich, to have their experts examine a pocket watch from the NHS collection. The Royal Observatory’s curator of Horology Rory McEvoy confirmed that the watch was not just a watch, but rather fourth in a series of five precision marine chronometers made by watchmaker John Arnold to calculate longitude. It was made around 1772. The third of the series is the only other one in the series known to have survived, and it’s in the British Museum.

John Arnold was born in 1736 in Bodmin, Cornwall, the son of watchmaker and nephew of a gunsmith. He worked for his uncle for a while, ultimately following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a highly skilled and innovative watchmaker. In 1764, just two years after opening a shop of his own in London, Arnold secured permission to present to King George III and his court the smallest repeating watch in the world. The half-quarter repeating watch cylinder escapement watch was mounted in a ring. The king and courtiers were impressed, and Arnold quickly became the watchmaker to the rich and aristocratic.

His ingenuity was put to the test in a problem that had obsessed clockmakers for decades: create a timepiece that would allow British sailors to calculate longitude while on board ship. Clockmaker John Harrison invented the marine timepiece which made it possible for the first time to calculate longitude at sea in 1759. His invention, which looked like an oversized pocket watch, took him six years to build, too long for his timepiece to be in compliance with the 1714 Longitude Act‘s requirement that construction of the device be practical as well as accurate. The whole point, after all, was for every ship in the Royal Navy to have one, so production had to streamlined.

In 1767, the Board of Longitude published a detailed illustrated description of Harrison’s clock, The Principles of Mr. Harrison’s Timekeeper, and spread it around to inventors in the hope that one of them might figure out a way to build a faster, better mousetrap, as it were. Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne gave Arnold a copy hot off the presses. He went his own way, creating a different device he presented to the Board in 1771. It was a clock in a mahogany box, and three of them were put to the test by Captains James Cook and Furneaux during Cook’s second voyage to the southern Pacific in 1772-1775.

Arnold’s were not very effective — only one of them survived the voyage in some semblance of working order — so he turned to pocket marine timekeepers instead. They worked. Captain Constantine Phipps, 2nd Baron Mulgrave, took one with him to the North Pole in 1773 and it performed like a champ. The Newport Historical Society’s chronometer — a term coined by John Arnold for a precision timekeeper and still in use today — is one of these.

This watch, produced in the early 1770s while one of Arnold’s see-saw escapement timekeepers was away on sea trials features a pivoted detent escapement; others had designed such mechanisms, but Arnold’s was a technological improvement.

It has an impeccable provenance, too.

The watch was acquired by Peleg Clarke in 1792. Clarke was a descendant of one of Newport’s first English settlers and wealthy merchant of the American colonial period who likely bought the watch from Arnold during a trip to London. He was an eyewitness to the Boston Tea Party and recorded his impressions in a letter now also in the society’s collections. The watch was passed down in the Clarke family for over 200 years, as a pocket watch, until it was donated to the society in 1997.

Arnold & Son, the company John Arnold founded in the 1787 with his clockmaker son, John Roger Arnold, is still in business today, and still makes marine chronometers, now in wrist watch form rather than pocket watch.

Met conservators repair della Robbia that fell from wall

April 7th, 2016

Late on the night of June 30th or early in the morning of July 1st, 2008, a blue-and-white glazed terracotta relief of Saint Michael the Archangel by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525) on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art fell from its metal wall mounts high on a wall above a doorway and crashed to the ground. A security guard found the lunette the next morning on its back on the stone floor, broken into many pieces. The gallery was closed and conservators picked up the pieces, some large — Michael’s head was undamaged — and some as small as fingernails. The pieces were bagged and numbered and removed to the museum’s Department of Objects Conservation later that day.

The Met hasn’t had the greatest luck with the mounting of their Renaissance masterpieces. At least they were able to puzzle out this jigsaw in seven years. The fall of Tullio Lombardo’s Adam in 2002 was even more catastrophic; it took 12 years to put all of his pieces back together. The museum notes all wall-mounted sculpture was reviewed after the accident, and new systems — comprehensive and regular inspections, formal approval of all mounts — were put in place to prevent something like this happening again.

Andrea della Robbia’s uncle Luca (1400-1482), who in his youth had an illustrious career a sculptor in bronze and marble, invented the blue and white tin-based glazes that made terracotta reliefs exceptionally durable, easy to clean and impervious to the vagaries of the weather. The glazed earthenware pieces were significantly less expensive than marble or bronze, and since they looked so good and needed so little care, soon della Robbia reliefs were in great demand. Luca’s clients included some of the most important people and institutions in Florence — Piero de’ Medici, Jacopo de’ Pazzi, the Duomo — and elsewhere.

Andrea, who had learned the secret glaze recipe as his uncle’s pupil, took over operations of the della Robbia workshop on Via Guelfa in Florence in the late 1460s or early 1470s. He picked up where his uncle left off, executing high-end commissions for reliefs of increasing size and architectural importance from major private clients and churches all over northern Italy. Saint Michael the Archangel was made around 1475 for the church of San Michele Arcangelo in Faenza, a town outside Ravenna known for its majolica pottery. In fact, the town is literally synonymous with majolica tin-glazed earthenware which became known as faience after Faenza. The relief was installed above the church door and remained there until 1798 when the church was demolished and Saint Michael the Archangel sold.

The Met acquired the piece in 1960 at an auction of the estate of American industrialist and diplomat Myron C. Taylor for $40,000 (about $320,000 today). The museum has one of the most important collections of della Robbia works in the United States, including an exquisite Virgin and Child. Saint Michael, however, is probably the most important of all.

There was an upside to the crash. Conservators were able to study the relief thoroughly before they went about reassembling the pieces. They found the artist’s finger and tool marks which shed new light on della Robbia’s production process. The workshop made quality artworks for refined and wealthy clients, but it also had to crank out new pieces at a canter to keep up with demand. Conservators found evidence of this in Saint Michael’s robe. It was made separately and then attached to the lunette, but the toga cracked during firing. Instead of starting over again — a time-consuming and expensive approach — they stuck it back together. It was going above a door, after all, and nobody was going to be at eye-level to see the tiny fissure lines.

The sculpture was originally made in 12 interlocking pieces. While conservators Wendy Walker and Janis Mandrus reassembled the broken pieces and filled in the areas of paint loss, conservation preparator Fred Sager developed a custom mount that secured each of the 12 sections individually to an aluminum backing plate. This makes it safer while still allowing visitors to enjoy the entire composed piece.

The most challenging part of the restoration, Ms. Walker said, was the in-painting between repaired cracks — trying to recreate the signature cobalt della Robbia blue that the critic Walter Pater described as being like “fragments of the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets.”

“In the morning it would look good,” she said of the modern paint, “and by noon, in a different light, you’d see and go, ‘No!’ and just want to pull your hair out.”

But another lesson the accident taught, in the end, was how durable della Robbias were made to be, despite their humble, seemingly fragile clay origins. St. Michael’s head, for example, was completely unharmed after its violent detachment the night of the fall.

“For hundreds of years, this was outside, in the elements, protected by its glaze,” Mr. Bell said. “And the amazing thing about these ceramics is that the surface still looks pretty much the same as the day it came out of the kiln.”

The relief is now back in the Met’s European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries, but this time it’s been mounted about at eye level to allow visitors to get a proper look at della Robbia’s amazing details, like the facial expressions and the little babies on the scale. They’re actually souls, not babies, weighed on the scales of justice and mercy. The happy light-weight one is saved for heaven; the facepalming heavy one is doomed to hell.

Burial ground unearthed at Laos’ Plain of Jars

April 6th, 2016

Archaeologists have unearthed a burial ground at one of Laos’ most fascinating and mysterious ancient sites, the Plain of Jars. The remains are estimated to be about 2,500 years old. An international team of archaeologists from The Australian National University (ANU), Monash University and the archaeology division of the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism discovered seven burials and four probable burials with ceramic grave goods.

The Plain of Jars is a group of more than 90 megalithic sites in the central Lao province of Xieng Khouang which are peppered with monumental stone jars carved from a quarry five to six miles away and then dragged to the various jar groupings. This was an impressive feat as some of the jars are massive; the largest weigh 10 metric tons. Most of them are made of sandstone, but four other rock types — granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia — were also used. They range from three to 10 feet high, two to six-and-a-half feet in diameter and are basically cylindrical in shape although they funnel upwards a little with a wider bottom than top. Rims around the top suggest they used to have lids, but no lids have ever been discovered in situ. Other stone pieces have been found, however: discs placed on the ground over burial pits and unworked stone grave markers.

Each jar grouping contains between one and 392 jars, the latter of which is near a Hmong village that can only be accessed by foot. The group where the burial ground was recently discovered is called Site 1 and has more than 300 jars, stone discs and grave markers. Very little is known about the makers of the Plain of Jars megaliths. With no writing and few engravings on the stones, archaeologists haven’t had much to go on.

In the first excavations in the 1930s, archaeologists found evidence of cremation, including burned teeth and bone fragments, inside the jars. They also found unburned human skeletal remains buried around the jars along with pottery, iron and bronze objects, beads and other artifacts. After that, there was a gap of six decades before the next archaeological explorations of the site. For almost a decade (1964-1973), the Plain of Jars was pelted with an unspeakable number of bombs by the US in the Secret War against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communists. US planes dropped 262 million cluster bombs on Laos, almost all of them on the Plain of Jars, and 80 million of them never exploded. Many of the ancient stones suffered irreparable damage, and the unexploded ordnance made one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world so dangerous that archaeologists didn’t return until 1994, and even though they stuck to surveys and a handful of excavations then they were taking enormous risks.

UNESCO and the Mines Advisory Group NGO cleared seven of the jar sites between 2004 and 2007, one of which was Site 1. This opened the door for a major archaeological excavation that might answer some of the many questions about who made these jars and why.

One popular theory was that the jars were used as vessels for decomposing bodies. Once the soft tissues had decayed, the bones were then buried around the jars. This year’s discovery of primary burial where the individual was interred in the burial ground and never moved is therefore of great importance.

[The Australian National University archaeologist and dig leader] Dr O’Reilly said the dig had revealed three distinct types of burial.

“There are pits full of bones with a large limestone block placed over them and other burials where bones have been placed in ceramic vessels,” he said. “Our excavations have also revealed, for the first time at one of these sites, a primary burial, where a body was placed in a grave.”

He also said that determining the status of the buried individuals was difficult due to a lack of material objects buried with them, but hoped some genetic analysis might shed some light on whom these people were related to.

DNA and stable isotope analysis could provide key information on the ethnicity and geographic origin of the people who used the stone jars. The project will continue for five years, stretching further afield to the Assam region of northeastern India where there are megalithic jar sites that are similar enough to the Laotian Plain of Jars to explore whether there may be a link between them.

Pistols Lafayette gave to Bolívar poised to break auction records

April 5th, 2016

A unique pair of pistols with a connection to two great revolutionary leaders — the Marquis de Lafayette and Simón Bolívar — and an association with a third — George Washington — are coming up for auction next week and may very well break the record for pistols sold at auction. They will be on the auction block at the Exceptional Sale on April 13th at Christie’s New York with a pre-sale estimate of $1,500,000-2,500,000.

The pair of silver-mounted rifled flintlocks were made by French gunsmith Nicolas Noël Boutet in 1824. They were a gift from Lafayette to Bolívar, the Venezuelan military leader who played a pivotal role in the South American revolutions against Spain and was instrumental in winning independence for Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and his namesake Bolivia. Bolívar had been an admirer of the luminaries of the American Revolution since he was a young boy, identifying particularly with George Washington, who like him, was raised a gentleman farmer.

In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette visited the United States on last time, traveling to every state where he was acclaimed by huge crowds as a national hero.

Simón Bolívar’s nephew and adopted son, Fernando Bolívar, had come to the U.S. in 1822 to attend Germantown Academy (later attending the newly established University of Virginia because of his uncle’s great admiration of Thomas Jefferson). Lafayette met Fernando Bolívar in July 1825 when he went to Germantown to deliver an address. A great admirer of Simón Bolívar, Lafayette corresponded with him and famously named him ‘the George Washington of Latin America’. At the request of the Washington family Lafayette sent to Bolívar on October 13, 1825 a portrait of the President, a lock of Washington’s hair and a gold medal with his likeness. It was likely at this time that Lafayette sent the Boutet pistols to Bolívar, as his personal gift to the younger revolutionary – who perhaps he saw as carrying on the torch he had, by then, put down. Bolivar wrote from Lima on March 20, 1826 in reply: “Ah, what mortal could ever be worthy of the honors that you and Mount Vernon see fit to lavish on me!”

Lafayette’s pistols were not the first set by Boutet owned by Bolívar. He was an avid collector of firearms and is known to have owned at least one other pair of elegant pistols made by Boutet in his Versailles workshop. Bolívar acquired them during a sojourn in Paris in 1804 shortly after he was widowed at the young age of 21 and years before he became El Libertador. The precise circumstances and date of this acquisition are not known, but he may have had a very relevant personal reason for possessing the pistols. During his year in Paris, Bolívar was ushered into society by his lover Countess Fanny du Villars, wife of Count Dervieu de Villars, a retired Napoleonic colonel who spent most of his time at his country estate in Lyons, leaving his much younger wife to party as hard as she wished. Consequently, she had more than one lover (as did Bolívar), one of whom was Eugène de Beauharnais, Josephine’s son and Napoleon’s stepson, then only 19 years old and already a general. She enjoyed playing the two against each other.

One evening, she asked Eugène which animal Simón most resembled and Eugène said “moineau” (sparrow). That was less than flattering as it was, but Bolívar misheard it as “mono (monkey) and was enraged. He challenged Eugène to a duel on the spot. Fanny convinced him he hadn’t been called a monkey and tempers cooled, but it’s possible that exchange persuaded Bolívar to buy a pair of dueling pistols from the country’s premier gunsmith. It’s also possible that Fanny bought them for him as a playful present.

Although we know from letters and contemporary accounts that Simón Bolívar had many firearms in his collection, only five are known to have survived. There’s the pair going up for auction on the 13th, the Fanny-era pair and one single pistol now in a museum. The dueling pistols sold at Christie’s New York in 2004 for $1,687,500.

George Washington pistols are also very rare — only five pairs are known — and one pair of them holds the current record for pistols sold at auction. It’s a pair of steel saddle-mounted pistols by gunsmith Jacob Walster which the Marquis de Lafayette brought with him in 1777 when he traveled to the nascent United States fight in the Revolutionary War. Lafayette gave the pistols to Washington during the war, and Washington is thought to have carried them at Valley Forge, Monmouth, Yorktown, and, once he was President, during the Whiskey Rebellion. Two decades after his death, they were given to a future US President, Andrew Jackson, by William Robinson, husband of Washington’s grand-niece. With so illustrious an ownership history, it’s not entirely surprising that the guns sold for $1,986,000 in 2002. They were bought by the Richard King Mellon Foundation and are now on display at the Fort Ligonier museum in Pennsylvania.

Unlike Washington’s saddle pistols, there’s no evidence the Lafayette-Bolívar pistols saw actual combat. Even so, with their impeccable ownership history, extreme rarity and connection to the Revolutionary War heroes, they could well blow through that figure.

Medieval copper scourge found at Rufford Abbey

April 4th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating Rufford Abbey, a country estate in Nottinghamshire, England, that was once a Cistercian monastery, have discovered the remains of a vicious-looking copper scourge. Nottinghamshire County Council community archaeologists were digging under a meadow on the property in 2014 when they saw a green stain in the soil. The stain surrounded pieces of wire copper strands that had been braided together in tubular form.

They weren’t certain what the fragments were, but archaeologists Emily Gillott and Lorraine Horsley thought it was reminiscent of a copper scourge unearthed in the dormitory area of the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. Testing of the artifact and consultation with experts has now confirmed that Gillot and Horsley were correct. It is one of only four monastic copper scourges known in Britain. The other three are at Rievaulx, Roche Abbey and Grovebury Priory. The exact date of manufacture and use is unknown, but it’s from the late medieval period.

These were personal items, likely used in the privacy of a monk’s own cell. He would beat himself with the scourge in voluntary penance, to mortify his flesh for his sins and the sins of everyone he prayed for as Christ voluntarily sacrificed his body for the sins of mankind. There was a long and controversial tradition of self-flagellation in the Catholic Church, particularly in monastic life. St. Peter Damien introduced the practice as part of a new, stricter interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict at the Camaldolese priory of Fonte Avellana in the 11th century. His self-flagellation rule was that it should be performed accompanied by the recital of psalms, 100 strokes of a leather thong on the bare back per psalm. The entire psalter would take 15,000 strokes to get through. Peter Damien suggested 40 Psalms and 4,000 stripes at a time should suffice, under normal circumstances, but the practice caught on like wildfire in the monastery and many monks outdid each other to pass that mark.

One of the monks at Fonte Avellana under St. Peter Damien’s leadership was St. Dominic Loricatus, whose moniker was a reference to the chain mail he wore next to his skin to torture himself harder than by wearing a mere hairshirt. He committment to self-flagellation was so extreme it seems impossible to be true. It got him a mention in Edward Gibbon The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

It is a maxim of the civil law, that whosoever cannot pay with his purse, must pay with his body; and the practice of flagellation was adopted by the monks, a cheap, though painful equivalent. By a fantastic arithmetic, a year of penance was taxed at three thousand lashes; and such was the skill and patience of a famous hermit, St. Dominic of the iron Cuirass, that in six days he could discharge an entire century, by a whipping of three hundred thousand stripes.

That’s 50,000 stripes a day. St. Peter Damien offered different figures in the biography he wrote of St. Dominic Loricatus. He said Loricatus did 12 Psalters without a break until he died of exhaustion in 1063. One Psalter = 15,000 lashes, so 12 = 180,000. Either way it’s horrifying, and that was with leather whip, not a copper one.

Self-flagellation became a regular part of monastic disciple for other rules as well, and spread far and wide during times of crisis, most notably when the Black Death tore through Europe in 1349. Flagellants would travel from city to city, naked from the waist up, whipping themselves while reciting psalms. They hoped their brutal public voluntary penance in imitation of Christ would persuade God to have mercy on the towns they visited and spare them from any further horrors of the plague. They probably helped spread it instead.

It’s possible that the copper scourges found in the English monasteries were used during the plague years as well. They’re certainly mean enough to suggest they were a response to a situation requiring extraordinary countermeasures.

Ancient textiles found in Nepal suggest Silk Road ran further south

April 3rd, 2016

Analysis of rare ancient textiles discovered in a tomb in Nepal suggest the Silk Road network may have extended further south than previously believed. The textile fragments were found in the Samdzong 5, one in a complex of 10 shaft tombs dug into a cliff face in Upper Mustang, Nepal, between 400 and 650 A.D. (Samdzong 5 dates to around 500 A.D.). The complex is 4,000 meters above sea level and 30 meters above ground surface and can only be accessed climbing the cliff face. People didn’t even know they were there until an earthquake in 2009 sheered off the facade of the cliff and exposed the tombs. The earthquake also caused the ceilings of the tombs to collapse, damaging the contents and accelerating the decay of organic that had otherwise been well-preserved thanks to the high altitude and stable dry conditions inside the caves.

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of 105 people in the tomb complex, but Samdzong 5 only contained two sets of disarticulated remains, one of an adult, one of a child aged 8-12. The skeletal remains of the adult were found in a wooden coffin with an impressive array of associated grave goods: two large copper vessels, a ladle, iron daggers, cups and trays made of wood and bamboo, copper and bronze bangles and thousands of glass beads. The star artifact was a mask made of gold and silver that archaeologists believe was a death mask placed over the face of the adult. Pinholes border the edges of the mask, which indicates the mask was once sewn to fabric. Textile fragments were discovered in close proximity to the coffin and goods.

Small samples from four textiles were examined with a scanning electron microscope to identify the fibers and their source(s). Two of the samples are degummed silk in a fine tabby weave. The yarn is untwisted and glossy, typical of Chinese silk. These textiles almost certainly were traded over long distances to get to Nepal, because there was no local silk production. The other two samples were found to be animal fibers in a warp-faced tabby and a twill weave. Cloth beads and copper tubular beads were sewn into the textiles in parallel rows.

The metals and beads were also found to have originated outside of Nepal. Some of the metals came from either Tibet or India; the beads came from a number of sources including South Asia, Central Asia and Sassania. The pigments were analyzed using micro-Raman spectrometry (MRS), the organic dyes using high pressure liquid chromatography with diode array detection (HPLC-DAD). MRS identified cinnabar pigment; HPLC-DAD found Indian lac, munjeet, turmeric (curcuma) and dyer’s knotweed or indigo dyes. All of these materials can be sourced in India or environs.

Identification of degummed silk fibres and munjeet and Indian lac dyes in the textile finds suggests that imported materials from China and India were used in combination with those locally produced. Says Gleba: “There is no evidence for local silk production suggesting that Samdzong was inserted into the long-distance trade network of the Silk Road.”

“The data reinforce the notion that instead of being isolated and remote, Upper Mustang was once a small, but important node of a much larger network of people and places. These textiles can further our understanding of the local textile materials and techniques, as well as the mechanisms through which various communities developed and adapted new textile technologies to fit local cultural and economical needs.”

The use imported, expensive materials as well as local ones is all unique to Samdzong 5, as are the mask and coffin. The other tombs have very little cultural material of any kind, just the human remains. This indicates the person in Samdzong 5 was an elite individual.

Space archaeologist finds potential Viking site in Canada

April 2nd, 2016

A test excavation in the peninsula of Point Rosee in southwestern Newfoundland, Canada, has unearthed evidence of a Viking settlement. If the site is confirmed as Norse, it will be the second of its kind and history books will have to be rewritten because Point Rosee is significantly more to the west than the Vikings were thought to have traveled.

Two Icelandic Sagas — the Saga of Eric the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders — recount how Leif Eriksson discovered a land to the west called Vinland and how Thorfinn Karlsefni followed in his footsteps and attempted to found a settlement in Vinland. Very little archaeological evidence has been found to support the oral and literary tradition (the sagas were written down 250 years after the events they describe). In 1960, the first and so far only verified North American Viking site was discovered in L’Anse aux Meadows, a coastal settlement on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, 300 miles northeast of Point Rosee.

Since then, a great many searches have turned up very meager evidence, none of it confirmed, of Norse settlement, but people keep looking. The Point Rosee site was pinpointed on satellite images by space archaeologist Sarah Parcak who has made the news recently because a) space archaeologist is probably the greatest job description of all time, and b) she won the $1 million TED prize last year for her work in locating ancient Egyptian sites and tracking looter activity from the skies. Parcak was enlisted by the PBS science program NOVA to scour satellite images from Baffin Island to Massachusetts in the search for Viking settlements in North America. She found hundreds of possibilities and one stand-out that appeared to have rectilinear structures hidden under vegetation.

Parcak and Canadian experts explored the site this summer. A magnetometer survey found a spot with high iron readings that according to the satellite images was surrounded by those buried straight-line features. The team dug exploratory trenches on the spot. They unearthed turf walls and a shallow pit. In front of the pit was a fire-cracked boulder. There also found ash residue, 28 pounds of slag and lumps of roasted iron ore. The evidence points to this being a hearth used to process bog iron, ore carried by rivers to wetlands where it forms metal deposits. The Vikings weren’t miners, but they needed a great deal of iron to maintain their ships. A replica longship in the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, has 7,000 iron nails keeping it together. That converts to 30 tons of raw ore just to supply enough nails for a single ship. That’s a lot of bog iron.

Only one other bog iron smithy has ever been found in North America: L’Anse Aux Meadows. Native Newfoundlanders did not practice this kind of metallurgy, nor is there any other evidence (flint, pottery) of indigenous or later European settlers present at the site.

It doesn’t look like much …, [b]ut lead archaeologist Sarah Parcak says the site is almost certainly only one of two things:

“Either it’s … an entirely new culture that looks exactly like the Norse and we don’t know what it is,” she told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “Or it’s the westernmost Norse site that’s ever been discovered.”

The excavation team will return to Point Rosee this summer to dig for more history-making treasure. Vikings Unearthed, the NOVA episode that documented their work last year, premiers on Wednesday, April 6th, on PBS in the United States. UK viewers get it two days earlier, Monday, April 4th, on BBC One. It will also be available streaming on PBS’ website starting Monday at 3:30 PM.

Here’s a preview of the episode:




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