Large medieval gaming piece found

A large medieval “tableman,” aka gaming piece, has been unearthed from the site of a medieval timber-framed building in Bedfordshire. Its size and decorative style suggest it dates to between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Crafted from a cattle mandible, the Bedfordshire piece is 6 cm (2.36 inches) in diameter. It was cut in a circular shape (a central dimple suggests a lathe was used to form it) and then decorated with concentric circles and the ring-and-dot design commonly found on Roman dice and game pieces as well as medieval ones.

Tablemen are so called because they were likely used to play various tables games (with ‘tables’ derived from the Latin tabula, meaning board or plank). In these games, two players would typically roll dice and move their pieces across rows of markings; an example still played today would be backgammon.

Tables games have developed over time and in the Roman period duodecim scripta was likely one of the first to be introduced in Britain. This game uses three rows of twelve markings, although little information has survived regarding gameplay. It is likely that the game ‘tabula’ was refined from duodecim scripta and continued to be played into the medieval period. Tabula is much more similar to backgammon and uses two rows of twenty-four points.

The Museum of Gloucester has a spectacular tabula set from the 11th or early 12th century that is the earliest surviving board and complete set of game pieces known to survive. It was discovered in Gloucester at the site of a Norman castle in 1983, and consists of 24 obelisk-shaped points (the strips pieces moved around on like in backgammon) and 30 pieces carved out of red deer antler and bone. The points were originally inlaid into a wood board, the eponymous tabula, that did not survive.

The Gloucester pieces are intricately carved with different depictions on each one, among them a horseback rider, a hanging man, an archer, an elephant, a manticore, a fiddler and a centaur with a bow and arrow. They are smaller than the Bedfordshire piece, averaging a diameter of 1.75 inches. None of them have ring-and-dot decoration, not even in the borders, but several of the points from the board do.

Viking hacksilver, coins found in Jutland cornfield

Two hoards of Viking hacksilver and coins dating to the late 10th century have been unearthed under a cornfield near Bramslev in northern Jutland. The two treasures were discovered less than 165 feet apart and are very similar in content. They were originally even closer, but later agricultural activity disturbed the deposits, intermingling the coins and other silver objects.

The first pieces were discovered last fall by Jane Foged-Mønster, a member of a local metal detecting association, Nordjysk Detektorforening, during a rally on a farmed field. She spotted a piece of silver which turned out to be a clipped Arabic dirham coin, then another fragment, this time a decorated silver ball from a ring buckle. The group, which works closely with museum archaeologists, recognized this was a treasure find and alerted experts from the North Jutland Museum.

Archaeologists followed up quickly with a rescue excavation of the site. Because it was actively in use for agriculture, anything else that might have been part of the hoard remaining in the plow layer was at imminent risk of being scattered or even destroyed. Jane Foged-Mønster and two of her co-discoverers from the metal detecting group aided in the excavation.

The archaeological team and volunteers spent a week digging at the site. They unearthed 300 finds, from small clippings of silver to jewelry and coins. The decorated ball terminal on a silver rod that Jane Foged-Mønster found has a pair. They both weigh about 70 grams (2.5 oz) and originally were part of the same piece of jewelry, likely a very large ring brooch. This type of jewel was worn by high-status men of Viking Ireland. Something this large and heavy and ornately decorated would have belonged to someone at the highest echelons of society like a bishop or even a king. It was likely looted by Danes in a raid and cut up for its silver weight.

Among the 300 finds are 50 coins, most of them Danish, but also German and Arabic. Some of the Danish coins are extremely rare cross coins struck in the reign of Harald “Bluetooth” Blåtand in the 970s and 980s. The crosses on the coins are believed to be connected to his King Harald’s conversion to Christianity and his aim of Christianizing the Danes. The ring fort of Fyrkat, built by King Harald Bluetooth around the same time the coins were struck, is just five miles away from the hoard site.

Fyrkat, together with Harald Blåtand’s other ring castles, were only in use for a very short time around the year 980. It is unknown why the ring castles were closed down, but at Trelleborg on Zealand, traces of battles have been found.

“Perhaps the castles were not given up entirely voluntarily, and perhaps it happened in connection with the final showdown between Harald Blåtand and his son Svend Tveskæg. The Bramslev treasures were apparently buried around the same time or shortly after the castles were abandoned, and if there have been disturbances at Fyrkat, it makes good sense that the local magnate here at Bramslev has chosen to hide his valuables out of the way, ” says [North Jutland Museums archaeologist] Torben Trier Christiansen.

The site is still harboring archaeological treasure. The excavation found signs of habitation beneath the plow layer. North Jutland Museums has received a grant to return to the site and investigate those structures this fall. The hoard will be exhibited to the public in North Jutland this summer and then transferred to the National Museum in Copenhagen.

North Sea oil rig technology saves Viking ships

The Gokstad ship, the Oseberg ship and the Tune warship are the three best-preserved Viking ships in the world. They have been housed in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum for nearly a century, along with hundreds of associated objects recovered from their burial mounds, many of them fragile organic remains (textiles, tapestries, plant material) and intact wooden conveyances like the three elaborately carved sleighs and a four-wheeled cart found in the Oseberg grave.

When the Viking Ship Museum opened in 1926, it was designed to accommodate approximately 40,000 annual visitors. By the time of its closure in 2021, it had become Norway’s most visited museum by far, averaging more than half a million annual visitors. Vibrations from all of those footfalls, temperature and moisture shifts from humans breathing and speaking and coughing and generally being the gross organisms we are put the ships at great peril. The bracing supports keeping the ships standing were also insufficient to keep the planks stable over time.

Clearly a new museum was going to have to be built to house the ships, but after an international commission of experts determined the ships were too fragile to survive the move to a new location, in 2013 the Norwegian government announced a plan to build an extension to the current Viking Ship Museum. The new facility would feature state-of-the-art climate control, supports and three times the space to house and manage the ships and their collection of associated objects. The ships would also only have to be moved a few hundred feet.

An architectural competition ensued, followed by drafts, feasibility studies, analysis on the feasibility studies, quality assurance studies and, of course, arguments about how much money this was all going to cost. Six years passed.

When two large cracks appeared on the Gokstad ship in 2019, conservators realized they were out of time. They had already added additional supports the year before, so when the planks cracked, experts knew there was no band-aid that could be applied to keep the ships from collapse in their current facility. That September, Norway granted the first funds to begin the new museum project.

After delays from budget overruns and the pandemic, construction on the new museum finally began in February of this year and is scheduled to reopen as The Museum of the Viking Age in 2026. There was still a thorny problem in how to keep the ships from falling apart in the interim, however. In fact, noise, movement and vibration from the construction of the annex posed an even greater threat to their stability than the cumulative footsteps of millions of people.

The ships have never been moved since their arrival at the museum. They have to stay put, as do the Oseberg sleighs, for their own safety. There are no other institutions with comparable experience to guide conservators in how to protect the vessels while earthmovers and jackhammers are rumbling about a few hundred feet away. So museum researchers looked a little further afield for relevant expertise, specifically to the North Sea offshore oil industry.

The team in the SGO [safeguarding of objects] project has found the solutions in collaboration with Imenco Smart Solutions, a company that normally produces equipment for the offshore industry in the North Sea.

To reduce vibrations and other impacts from the construction process, the ships are protected in huge, custom-made steel rigs weighing up to 50 tons each. The rigs, which will later serve as moving rigs, now rest on four strong steel beams that are founded in the basement of the former Viking Ship Museum.

“The energy from the building project is captured in these beams and reduced by vibration isolators. That way, the Viking ships are exposed to minimal vibrations and shaking,” explains [SGO conservator David] Hauer.

During the construction work, the Viking ships and sleighs left at the Viking Ship Museum will be closely monitored. Everyone who works on the construction site has an alarm that goes off if the vibrations exceed the permitted value.

You can see the ships in their badass protective steel rigs in this video:

Unique Nubian Christian frescoes found in Dongola

Archaeologists excavating the medieval ghost city of Dongola in Sudan have discovered a previously unknown complex of rooms covered with Christian wall paintings that are unique on the archaeological record. They include depictions of a Nubian king bowing to Christ while under the protective embrace of the Archangel Michael. This scene has no parallels in Nubian art.

Located on the east bank of the Nile, Dongola was built in the 5th century as a heavily fortified citadel. It became the capital of the Coptic kingdom of Makuria in the mid-6th century and prospered mightily thanks to trade agreements with Muslim Egypt. The city grew, expanding well beyond the original defensive walls of the citadel, reaching its economic, artistic and religious zenith between the 9th and 11th centuries. Makuria became one of the most important states in medieval Africa until its conquest by the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt in the 14th century. After that, the process of urbanization ground to a halt and Dongola contracted. It was finally abandoned in the 18th century.

There are more than a dozen churches in Dongola and two monasteries within the expanded urban periphery. The Monastery of the Holy Trinity is notable for its unique wall paintings dating to the city’s heyday in the 11th-13th century. More than 100 paintings adorn its walls, depicting Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, angels, saints and scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

The newly-discovered wall paintings are not in any of the churches or monasteries. They were found under private homes from the Funj period (16th-19th c.)

The paintings within it showed the Mother of God, Christ, as well as a scene depicting a Nubian king, Christ, and Archangel Michael. However, this was not a typical representation of a Nubian ruler under the protection of saints or archangels. The king bows to Christ, who is seated in the clouds, and kisses his hand. The ruler is supported by Archangel Michael, whose spread wings shield both the king and Christ himself. Such a scene finds no parallels in Nubian painting. The dynamism and intimacy of the representation contrasts with the hieratic nature of the figures shown on the side walls. Neither does the figure of the Virgin Mary on the north wall of the chamber belong to the typical repertoire of depictions of Mary in Nubian art. The Mother of God, shown in a dignified pose, is dressed in dark robes. In her hands she holds a cross and a book. Christ is depicted on the opposite wall. His right hand is shown in a gesture of blessing, and in His left he holds a book, which is fragmentarily preserved.

The paintings are accompanied by inscriptions currently studied by Dr. Agata Deptuła from PCMA UW. A preliminary reading of the Greek inscriptions has led to their identification as texts of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. An inscription in Old Nubian that accompanies the main scene is extremely difficult to decipher. Thanks to a preliminary reading by Dr. Vincent van Gerven Oei, the researchers learned that it contains several mentions of a king named David and a plea to God for protection of the city. The city mentioned in the inscription is probably Dongola, and King David is likely the royal figure depicted in the scene. David was one of the last rulers of Christian Makuria, and his reign marked the beginning of the end of the kingdom. For reasons unknown, King David attacked Egypt, which retaliated by invading Nubia and, as a result, Dongola was sacked for the first time in its history. Maybe the painting was created as the Mamluk army was approaching the city or already laying siege to it?

The biggest puzzle, however, is the complex of rooms in which the paintings were found. The spaces themselves, covered with vaults and domes and made of dried brick, are quite small. The room with the painted scene showing king David resembles a crypt, but it is 7 meters above the medieval ground level. The building is adjacent to a sacral building identified as the Great Church of Jesus, which was probably the cathedral of Dongola and the most important church of the kingdom of Makuria. Arab sources recounting King David’s attack on Egypt and the capture of the port of Aidhab and Aswan, maintain that this act was instigated by the Great Church of Jesus. Did the Archbishop of Dongola, much like Pope Urban II, incite King David to launch a crusade?

When the excavation came to end last month, the immediate priority was the conservation of the fragile wall paintings. Sections of plaster had detached from the walls and needed to be re-adhered, a challenging job in the confined spaces of the room complex in the hot temperatures of March in Sudan. Conservators from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw, and the Department of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw worked together to stabilize the wall paintings, injecting putties in the gaps behind the plaster and preserving the paint on the plaster itself. The complex of rooms will be excavated further when the dig season resumed in the fall.

Anglo-Saxon bag rings made of African elephant ivory

Ivory bag rings discovered in Anglo-Saxon women’s graves have been identified as elephant ivory from contemporary African elephants. A new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports has taken a multi-disciplinary approach to examine the ivory and narrow down its origin.

Bag rings have been unearthed in the graves of high-status Anglo-Saxon women in more than 70 cemeteries across England ranging in date from the late 5th to the 7th century A.D. (Ivory rings of around the same date have been found in graves in northern Germany, but far fewer of them than in England.) They are placed at the hip and originally formed the opening of an organic bag worn at the waist along with other objects (tools, knives, girdle hangers).

The rings were smoothed and polished to a high shine and reconstructions based on traces of textile remains indicate the bags hung off the rings so that the ivory was visible. Ivory was a rare and expensive material in early Anglo-Saxon England. Showing it off would have been a conspicuous display of wealth and status.

The source of the ivory for the bag rings has been subject of scholarly debate since they were first discovered in the 19th century. Elephant ivory was not seen as a likely candidate because the trade in African and Asian elephant ivory was believed to have ground to a halt with the fall of the western Roman Empire. Walrus ivory was the dominant source in the later Anglo-Saxon era. Prehistoric mammoth ivory was another possibility. The bag rings are circular and of a larger diameter than the oval, narrow walrus tusks, however, and in several instances, radiocarbon dating of the rings contradicted the mammoth hypothesis.

Between 2017 and 2019, an excavation of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Scremby, Lincolnshire, unearthed 49 inhumations, seven of them containingi the remains of adult females with circular ivory rings at their hips. Researchers have undertaken a multidisciplinary analysis of five of the rings from the Scremby burials in the hopes of pinpointing the origin of the ivory. Radiocarbon dating was employed to confirm the era of the elephantid species, Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) to distinguish between Asian and African elephantid species and strontium isotope analysis to determine where the animals lived at the time the tusks were formed.

Radiocarbon dating found that the ivory was roughly contemporaneous with the burials, dating between 428 and 598 A.D. This rules out mammoths, the last of which had died out in Siberia 2,500 years before that. ZooMS identified the Scremby ivories as African elephant. Strontium isotope analysis narrowed down the probable biosphere range of the elephants to the East African Rift Valley in what are now Kenya and Ethiopia.

Armed with this information, researchers believe the elephant ivory was traded by the Kingdom of Aksum in what is now Eritrea. The powerful kingdom had dominated trade in the Red Sea after the fall of Rome, and archaeological evidence of ivory working as late as the 6th century has been found at Aksum sites. The lack of ivory waste at Anglo-Saxon sites indicates the rings were manufactured elsewhere and imported into England. Aksum’s ivory trade declined in the 7th century with the Islamic conquests in North Africa and African ivory was rerouted to China and India where demand was high. In addition to a sharp decline in the supply of elephant ivory rings, the shift in funerary practices as Anglo-Saxons became increasingly Christianized may have decreased demand, a combination that led to disappearance of African elephant ivory bag rings on the archaeological record in the 7th century A.D.