Unique two-faced gold ring found in Kraków

A gold ring from the 11th or 12th century with an unusual two-faced design has been discovered at Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków. The top of the ring is widened and flattened. It is engraved with two anthropomorphic figures, faces looking away from each other. This is the only example ever discovered of an early medieval Polish ring decorated with figural representations, let alone human faces. The few gold rings from the period that have been found in Poland are either undecorated or ornamented with simple geometric designs.

The ring is 1.5mm thick, 4mm in diameter with a circumference of 57mm. The bottom of the band is broken, but there does not appear to have been a great deal of gold lost. The overall shape and style of the ring is typical of this area of Poland, so it was likely produced locally for an elite member of the Piast dynasty court.

The royal castle on Wawel Hill towers over the historic center of Kraków. The earliest royal residence at the site was built by Mieszko I (r. ca. 960–992), the first king of Poland. He converted to Christianity in 966 and eight years after his death the first cathedral in Poland was built next to the royal castle on Wawel Hill. Polish kings would be crowned and buried there for centuries.

The early medieval castle was greatly expanded and modernized into a splendid Renaissance palace by the Jagiellonian dynasty kings (Alexander I, Sigismund I the Old and Sigismund II Augustus) of the 16th century. The court was moved from Kraków to Warsaw in 1609 and Wawel Castle fell into a slow decline that was violently sped up when it was sacked by Swedish troops during the Deluge campaigns (1648-1667). Come the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, the devastated castle was repurposed as an army barracks for Austrian troops. Poland reclaimed it with its own independence in 1918 when it served both as residence for the head of state and as a museum.

The gold ring was discovered during an archaeological excavation under the Danish Tower, a residential tower on the east wing of the castle built in the late 14th century, but the ring predates construction of the tower. It was in the archaeological layer on top of the remains of an older stone structure that may have been a defensive rampart.

The ring will now undergo metal analysis that may provide more data about the composition and origin of the gold. When the scientific research is complete, the ring will go on display.

Full Avar armor found in grave in Hungary

Archaeologists from the Déri Museum have unearthed a complete set of lamellar armor in an Early Avar grave near Ebes, northeastern Hungary. It dates to the first half of the 7th century and is only the second set of Pannonian Avar lamellar armor ever discovered largely intact and in its original position. The first was found in Derecske just 10 miles south of Ebes in 2017.

Believed to have originated from the Eastern Eurasian Steppe, the Pannonian Avar peoples invaded Eastern Europe in the 6th century and established a Khaganate that ruled over the Pannonian Basin until its defeat by Charlemagne’s son Pepin of Italy in 796. Their heavy cavalry was a key element of their success in battle, and lamellar armor was an essential part of the equipment of Pannonian Avar heavy cavalry. They were not military-issue, not uniforms. The officers had them custom-made to fit, and there is a wide range of types, sizes and shapes with different numbers of plates and different laces.

The grave was found in November 2023 during a preliminary excavation of a ten-hectare site on the outskirts of the village of Ebes. Two Avar cemeteries had been discovered earlier in the course of the excavation project, but this grave was solitary, not part of either of the cemeteries. The team first encountered the skeletal remains of a horse. Under the horse bones the set of armor was found, a wooden quiver with arrows, a bow and a sword placed atop the armor. The deceased was not buried wearing the armor, rather it was laid over him, then topped with his weapons and the horse of top of them.

The horse bones were removed in situ. The rest of the grave and its artifact assemblage were removed in a large soil block and transported to the museum for excavation in laboratory conditions to ensure the armor elements stay in their original configuration and so that any organic materials, even traces, can be detected in the soil. The weapons and armor are currently exposed on the surface of the block, but have not been fully recovered.

The meticulous micro-excavation is expected to take several more months. Archaeologists think there may be additional grave goods underneath the deceased that are not yet visible.

Women buried with elaborate neck rings found in Ukraine

The remains of women buried with thick twisted bronze neck rings have been discovered in an 11th century cemetery near the village of Ostriv south of Kyiv, Ukraine.

The 11th-century cemetery is located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Kyiv. Of its 107 graves, “most of the identified burials were deposed in wooden coffins,” Vsevolod Ivakin and Vyacheslav Baranov, both archaeologists at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, wrote in a paper they presented at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, which was held Jan. 4-7 in Chicago.

The cemetery’s dead include both men and women. Some of the men were buried with weapons, such as axes, spearheads and swords, Ivakin and Baranov wrote. A few of the women were buried with elaborate neck rings, which “are found only on necks in female burials and were apparently a kind of social marker,” in this region at the time, Baranov told Live Science in an email.

An expedition by the Institute of Archaeology of Ukraine discovered the Ostriv graveyard in 2017. Between 2017 and 2022, excavations unearthed the 107 inhumation burials dating from the late 10th and 11th centuries. The unique nature of the graves was quickly apparent. Unlike the unusual funerary practices in the Kyivan Rus during this period, the graves were oriented south and west instead of north.

Red slate spindle whorl. Photo courtesy Vyacheslav Baranov.The deceased were laid in supine position (on their backs), with outstretched limbs. Traces of wooden coffins were found in most of the graves. The remains of funerary food offerings (chicken bones, eggshells) were found in the graves and in wooden buckets at the feet of some of the deceased. Some individuals were laid to rest with extremely rich goods: slate spindle whorls, jewelry, including the bronze neck rings and bracelets, pennanular brooches, cast bronze belt rings, cowrie shell bead necklaces, and weapons including battles axes, knives and spearheads.

The orientation and funerary furnishings were very similar to the practices of Western Baltic tribes, but the comparison was not exact. Most notably, the Western Baltic peoples typically cremated their dead, and none of the Ostriv graves were cremation burials. Buckets are also not typical of Baltic funerary traditions. Archaeologists hypothesize that these key differences may be attributed to restrictions placed on traditional funerary practices by the Christian dukes of Kyiv, primarily Volodymyr the Great (r. 980-1015) and Yaroslav the Wise (r. 1019-1054), and by the process of Christianization of the Baltic settlers of the region during the 11th century. A stone altar found in the cemetery could have been used for Christian or pagan rituals, or a mixture of the two.

Excavations at Ostriv (and everywhere else in Ukraine) are on pause for now due to the Russian invasion.

Ulfberht Viking sword dredged out of Vistula river

A Viking-era sword bearing an Ulfberht inscription was discovered last week during dredging works on the Wisła river in Włocławek, central Poland. The sword is more than a thousand years old. Even heavily encrusted and blackened by years spent at the bottom of a silty river, the three lobes of the pommel are clearly discernible, categorizing it as a Petersen Type S sword which typically date to the 10th century.

The sword was found by workers removing the alluvial sediment that had built up on the floor of the marina basin. An oblong metal object was spotted in the pile of extracted sediment and a quick rinse revealed it to be a sword. An X-ray of the sword found the inscription “+VLFBERHT+” on the blade.

There are about 170 Ulfberht swords known. Characterized by the inscription +VLFBERHT+ or +VLFBERH+T on the blade, because “Ulfberht” is a Frankish name, the swords are believed to be of Frankish origin, likely from the Rhineland region. They were manufactured from the 9th to the 11th centuries using a variety of metalworking techniques. Most of them have been found in Northern Europe, Russia and the Baltic states. Only eight of them have been found in Poland.

Petersen Type S swords were often covered in organic materials like leather or rope at the hilt, materials that could very well have survived the centuries in the anaerobic conditions of the river sediment. The Provincial Office for the Protection of Monuments has delivered the sword to researchers from the Nicolaus Copernicus University who will study, clean and conserve it. Once it has been conserved, it will become a permanent addition to the collections of the Museum of the Kuyavian and Dobrzyń Lands, and will go on display at the Włocławek History Museum.

Complete 14th c. gauntlet found in Switzerland

A complete iron armor gauntlet from the 14th century has been discovered at Kyburg Castle in the canton of Zürich, northeastern Switzerland. Most surviving armor gauntlets in armories, museums and private collections date to the 15th century at the earliest, usually later. Gauntlets from the 14th century are extremely rare, with only five other examples found in Switzerland. None of them are complete, and none of them are as detailed in design as this one.

Cantonal archaeologists excavated a site southeast of the castle in the winter of 2021/22 in a rescue operation before construction of a home with a basement. The area is archaeologically significant because the outer bailey of the castle and its defensive walls used to extend over what is now the village of Kyburg. Artisan workshops and the homes of the castle’s servants were located in the outer bailey, so any planned construction there triggers an emergency archaeological investigation.

The team unearthed a medieval weaving cellar which had contained three looms. The room had burned down in the 14th century, and the components of the gauntlet were found close together in the cellar. A forge from the same period was either above the weaving room or next to it. Evidence of forging work found in the excavation includes molds, a hammer, pliers and tweezers. Iron objects produced at the forge were also found, including keys, knives, hinges, pins, a writing stylus and a hand drill. It total, more than 50 metal objects were recovered from the forge. The components of two gauntlets, the right one complete, the left one fragmentary, were among them.

The complete gauntlet is large, more than 14 inches long. It features individual iron plates that overlap each other like scales and are connected to each other with side rivets. Originally they would have been riveted to a leather or fabric material that would then be sewn onto a leather of textile glove. Thanks to the small plates and flexible underlayers, the wearer could comfortably grip a sword and even make a fist. The design type had remarkable longevity, remaining in use until the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).

The gauntlet is currently being kept in the cantonal archaeology offices in Dübendorf. It will go on display for three weeks only at the Kyburg Castle starting on European Heritage Day (September 7th). A 3D-printed replica will be on permanent exhibition at the castle from March 29th.