Medieval king’s wharf found in Oslo

An excavation in the waterfront Bjørvika neighborhood of Oslo has unearthed the remains of a long section of a wharf believed to have been built by a medieval king of Norway. More than 26 feet of the foundations of the pier have survived in excellent condition under the thick clay of the Oslofjord seabed.

The wharf foundation was built by interlacing massive logs into bulwarks that were then embedded into the seabed. Impressions of barnacles and mussels on the logs indicate they were left exposed in the water. The structures built on top of the foundations over time pressed them deeper into the clay where they were preserved even when the surface structures were lost.

A small mystery is that inside the bulwark there are several layers of dung, food waste, fish bones and sodden peat.

“This is very mysterious,” says [NIKU archaeologist and project manager Håvard] Hegdal. “How has this come into what has been a closed construction? There has been a floor above us, and probably a building, and it shouldn’t be possible to throw food scraps and other things down here.”

There was also a lot of dirt from a boat inside these layers. And it shouldn’t have come in here in any case. So ‘King’s wharf’ may have had a reasonably short lifespan, and that is quite strange.”

Slices will be taken from the bulwark logs so they can be dated dendrochronologically. Haakon V (r. 1299-1319) is the likeliest candidate for construction of the wharf. It was during his reign that Oslo surpassed Bergen to become capital of Norway, and it was Haakon who had the Akershus Fortress built to defend the city and as a royal residence. The foundations of the pier were found right outside the remains of the royal palace that preceded Akershus Fortress.

If the timbers date to after 1319, then it wasn’t a royal wharf after all because after Haakon’s death the property was given to the dean of St. Mary’s Church. A layer of blue clay covering the remains was deposited in a mudslide in the late 14th century so that’s the outside date boundary, but the wharf was built long before then.

The remains of the wharf have been scanned to create a 3D model. 

Mother and child buried holding hands

An excavation at the site of a future primary school in Marseille has revealed a cemetery from the Middle Ages that contains an unusual three double graves. The remains of an adult woman and a young child were found inside each of the graves, likely mothers and children. They died and were buried at the same time, and were laid to rest with tenderness and affection. In one of them, the child is holding the adult’s hand.

The cemetery was in use from the 7th to the 10th century A.D., but the double burials are from the earliest part of the range. The deceased were interred in shrouds and wore modest copper, bronze and iron jewelry typical of the Merovingian era. That dates the burials to the 7th or 8th century.

Archaeologists discovered almost 95 burials in the cemetery, many of them children. For the most part they were interred on their backs in simple graves. Some of the graves are tile burials in which the deceased was laid to rest on a bed of flat roof riles. A few of the graves are formed and lined by slabs of local stone. Neither the tile nor the cist burials have surviving roofs, but fragments found in the graves suggest some of them may have originally had covers. Wood fragments discovered in the some of the burials indicate the presence of wood planking.

The tombs were repeatedly reopened over the years, not by looters, but to make room for new bodies. After a decent interval to allow for the decomposition of soft tissues, a grave was opened and a newly-dead occupant added, often on top of the original occupant. The graves were likely visible on the surface in order for people to make these additions easily.

The site was occupied long before the Merovingian era. The excavation revealed a dozen or so pits and postholes dating to around 1400-1300 B.C., evidence of a Bronze Age occupation. One of the pits contained the remains of a child. One of the larger postholes contained a ceramic vessel that may have been used as cinerary urn for cremated remains. A large pit originally dug to extract clay for ceramics was later utilized as a temporary habitat. A plethora of stake holes point to it having been used as shelter by multiple people. Those were temporary structures, but a mudbrick wall points to the site having been used to erect more permanent dwellings later on in the Bronze Age.

Comb made from human skull found

A fragment of an Iron Age comb discovered during highway construction has been identified as a rare example of a bone comb carved from a human skull, one of only three known. The comb was unearthed at Bar Hill near Cambridge, the site of an Iron Age settlement where the unprecedented mass burial of 8,000 frog bones was discovered in the same archaeological excavation. In three years of excavation at Bar Hill, archaeologists recovered 280,000 remains and artifacts. Since the dig ended in 2018, Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) researchers have been going through the immense backlog of Bar Hill objects, which is why it has taken this long to analyze the comb and identify it as a carved piece of human skull.

It is an end piece of a rectangular comb with rounded edges and short, thick teeth roughly cut that they are separated from each other at the tips. There is no wear on the teeth on the comb, which there would have been had it been utilized as a tool, either for combing hair or in the manufacture of textiles. It did have a hole drilled in the middle (a semi-circular edge of the perforation is visible on the top left of the fragment), which suggests it may have been worn as an amulet instead of employed for practical purposes.

The  other two skull bone combs were discovered very close by: one in Earith, nine miles north of Bar Hill, the other at Harston Mill, 10 miles to the south. For the only three skull combs ever discovered to be located in such close proximity to each other suggests this have been a regional or local practice exclusive to the area.

Conversations between Michael Marshall and MOLA Osteologist (human bone expert), Michael Henderson, also sparked a new theory. It is possible the teeth of the comb could represent the natural sutures that join sections of the human skull.

Michael Marshall explains further:

“These carved teeth and lines would have highlighted the Bar Hill Comb’s origin, especially for local Iron Age communities who were familiar with skeletal remains. It’s symbolism and significance would have been obvious to anyone who encountered it.”

Instead of being just a practical tool, the Bar Hill comb may have been a powerful object for members of the local Iron Age community. Perhaps the skull belonged to an important person, who continued to play a role in the community even after their death.

When analyses of the Bar Hill Comb are complete, it will find a permanent home at the Cambridgeshire Archaeology Archive.

Celtic figurine, now with hinged phallus action!

The latest entry in the ancient phallus sweepstakes brings something new to the table: a hinge at the base of the penis that gives it articulating erection action. G.I. Joe is chartreuse with envy right now. The bronze figurine of a male with a disproportionately prodigious hinged phallus was discovered in Haconby, Lincolnshire. It dates to the 1st century A.D. It is the only Iron Age posable phallus ever discovered.

The bronze figure is a petite 5.5 cm (2.2 inches) high and 1.2 cm (.5 inches) wide. It is the stylized figure a man with an oval face, flat nose and slit mouth. His left arm is bent and holding a small bag against his chest. His right arm extends down his torso to clutch what is by far the largest part of him. So large, in fact, that when it is in its flaccid posture it is significantly longer than his short conjoined legs. A loop behind his head suggests it was meant to be worn as a pendant.

That this is the first hinged phallus figure we know of from antiquity is really saying something when you consider the sheer scale of phallus production in the Greco-Roman world. Obviously Roman metal smiths and wood carvers had the know-how for this kind of articulation. The exceptional doll found in the sarcophagus of a young Roman woman of the 2nd century named Crepereia Tryphaena has fully movable hip, knee and elbow joints. They just don’t seem to have employed the technique in their phallocrafting.

The figurine was discovered by Paul Shepheard who was participating in a metal detecting rally alongside his wife Joanne. She found a medieval penny. He found a Celtic bronze nude with an articulating penis. He didn’t immediately recognize it as such, perhaps unsurprisingly. As a former farm equipment restorer, Paul thought it looked like a split pin, a part used to fix wheels on carts. Then he saw it had a face and realized it was a figure, not a pin.

The Haconby Celtic fertility figurine will be going under the hammer at Noonan’s Ancient Coins and Antiquities auction on March 9th. The pre-sale estimate is £800 to 1,200 ($965-1,447).

In other recent phallus news, The Guardian published a letter proposing that the wooden one from Vindolanda is a lot closer to a darning tool than a phallus after all. Linsey Duncan-Pitt of Telford, Shropshire, makes a persuasive (and highly entertaining) argument that it was a drop spindle.

The tip looks a little glans-like, but it is also like the notch at the pointed end of the dealgan, used to secure the spun fibre with a half-hitch. The spindle is then rotated to add twist to the drafted fibres, and the spun fibre is wound around the shaft. The base of the artefact is wider than the tapering shaft; that would help stop the fibre slipping off. Some dealgans have a notch on the base, but not all.

Given that it was found among other crafting materials, this would seem to be a much more feasible explanation for this object than a dildo. It’s a bit understated as a dildo, and would no doubt make for a more satisfying spin than anything else.

Modern spinners like me love a decorative and unusual spindle, and so it seems more logical that this was a cheeky Roman design.

Gold, carnelian necklaces found in Bronze Age double grave

A double grave from the Late Bronze Age containing three gold and carnelian necklaces has been unearthed at the archaeological site of Metsamor in western Armenia. The skeletal remains of two adults were discovered in a cist (a stone-lined box built into the earth) that also contained the rare remains of a wooden burial bed. The grave dates to 1300–1200 B.C.

Excavations in the necropolis were carried out in grave No. 23 (chamber dimensions 2.50 x 2.10 m). It is well preserved, covered with a flooring of medium-sized stones. Under it, a burial chamber lined with medium and large stones, oriented from east to west, was unearthed. In the burial chamber on the burial bed, in a twisted state, two human skeletons were found, touching in the area of ​​the pelvic bones. One of the skeletons lay on the right side, the other on the left. In the same layer, 10 solid ceramic vessels were found. Some of the vessels were under the stretcher. As a result of soft tissue rotting, the osteological material ended up on the vessels. In the lower layer, 8 more ceramic items were found, of which the rarest is a small bluish-green glazed vessel with two through holes in the upper part of the body. Cylindrical and spherical beads, bead separators, pendants made of gold, carnelian, amber and tin were found on the neck and chest of the skeletons. Bronze bracelets were found on the wrist of one of them, and tin buckles were found in the abdomen.

A ring made of thin tin wire was found on the wrist of skeleton No. 2. Preliminary research shows that the skeletons of a man and a woman were excavated in the grave chamber. A preliminary study of the archaeological material makes it possible to date the burial to the last quarter of the 2nd millennium BC.

The Bronze Age citadel of Metsamor was built on a hill overlooking the Ararat plain. We don’t know by whom, exactly, as the inhabitants were not literate and left no written documentation behind. In the past decade, a joint team of Polish and Armenian archaeologists excavating the citadel and the lower town have found evidence of occupation in settlements from the Early Bronze Age through the Middle Ages.

When it was at the peak of its population and size in the 4th to the 2nd millennium B.C., the settlement occupied more than 10 hectares and was encircled by cyclopean walls. It continued to expand and grow, reaching nearly 100 hectares in the early Iron Age (11-9th century B.C.). With at least seven temples in the citadel, Metsamor was one of the most important political and cultural centers in the valley.

The necropolis was a third of a mile east of the cyclopean walled perimeter of the settlement. It has been excavated since the 1960s, revealing more than 100 burials from the Middle Bronze Age to the Iron Age. The cist and box graves predominate, but there are also kurgans (burial mounds) and cromlechs (stones arranged in a circular pattern on top of a burial chamber).

The double grave was excavated in the September-October 2022 excavation of the necropolis. The deceased were around 30-40 years old when they died. There is no evidence that the grave was ever reopened, which means the couple died at the same time. There is no obvious cause of death to explain this timing.

The grave is richly appointed and by a lucky break, was never looted in antiquity, a rarity in this context. Only a few of the graves in the necropolis have managed to avoid grave robbers over the millennia, which makes this burial even more significant because of the density of archaeological material that might shed new light on the funerary practices, trade links and lifestyles of Metsamor’s Bronze Age inhabitants.