Visit Henry III’s toilet at restored Clifford’s Tower

Clifford’s Tower in York is the only structure remaining from York Castle. The original structure on the site was a timber Norman motte-and-bailey castle built by William the Conqueror in 1068. The wooden keep was burned down in 1190 in a horrific anti-Semitic riot where the 150 members of York’s Jewish community had barricaded themselves inside the tower from the wrath of the mob. Under violent attack from knights, a siege engine and the rioters, the Jews inside the keep killed themselves and set fire to the tower. The few who opted out of suicide and managed to escape the tower were massacred by the mob.

The present Clifford’s Tower was constructed on the ashes of this tragedy. Reconstruction began in the early 13th century, but the new stone keep would not be completed until the end of the century. York Castle would mainly be used for administrative purposes — prison, mint, briefly as headquarters of the Exchequer — not as an actual royal residence. It was not well-maintained. Accounts from the 15th century already report some of the buildings were in ruins, and there was a scandal in the 1590s around the gaoler of the castle purportedly trying to demolish the tower to sell the stone.

Clifford’s Tower saw real action in the English Civil War. Queen Henrietta Maria had it restored and a new wood roof put on in 1643 just in time for it to be taken by Parliamentarian forces in 1644. After the Restoration, the tower was garrisoned by troops who were notorious carousers. On April 23, 1684, they fired a ceremonial salute indoors and set the place on fire again. The fire gutted the wooden interiors and Henrietta Maria’s roof and the tower fell to ruin. Occasionally people used it as a stable or barn.

Finally it became property of the state in the 1915 and it was repaired and stabilized in the 1930s so it could be opened to the public for the first time in centuries. It was sort of a look-in attraction, however, a 15-minute visit at most to walk up the stone circular staircase to see some great views of York, including the Minster. There was no signage to speak of, limited information panels, and nothing to do inside but look up at the sky.

Now English Heritage has invested £5 million in a total transformation of the tower’s interior. Timber stairs and hanging walkways criss-cross up the tower walls, giving visitors access to long-hidden spaces like Henry III’s garderobe, ie, his toilet. It was a high-tech bathroom in the 13th century, complete with a built-in toiletries cupboard, a flushing spout that ran water down the lavatory hole all the way down and out the tower. Visitors who Escher their way up the walkways will reach the new roof deck with spectacular views of the city.

The new interior and roof deck at Clifford’s Tower has been designed by Hugh Broughton Architects, a leading contemporary architectural practice. Supported by four slender wooden columns, the ingenious structure sits on a raft foundation, which spreads the load without impacting on the archaeological remains beneath the tower. The practice has worked closely with conservation specialists Martin Ashley Architects to produce a scheme which sits respectfully within the heritage structure.

New interpretation will help place the tower in the context of both the historic York Castle and the city of York itself as well as introducing visitors to the tower’s long and turbulent history. Visitors can explore the castle’s founding by William the Conqueror, the tower’s role as the site of the tragic 1190 massacre and suicide of York’s Jewish community – one of the worst anti-Semitic episodes in English history – and the role of the castle as both a medieval royal stronghold and a garrison during the Civil War.

Integral to the new scheme is its soundscape. Layers of background sound will take visitors back in time, allowing them to experience the tower as it would have been at various periods in its long history. Visitors can engage with five key moments in that history with the help of the voices of local residents who bring the stories of fictional characters to life, each representing a different chapter in the tower’s past.

Clifford’s Tower reopens Saturday, April 2nd. Here’s some cool drone footage of the new roof deck:

Versailles restores Royal Tennis Court as Museum of the Revolution

The Tennis Court Oath was one of the pivotal moments of the French Revolution. The day was June 20, 1789. The deputies of newly-formed National Assembly, a little too heavy on the Third Estate, too light on the Clergy and Nobility and way too keen to make France a constitutional monarchy for King Louis XVI’s taste, arrived at the meeting place of the Estates General only to find the doors barred and the premises occupied by troops. So they regrouped a few streets over inside the Royal Tennis Court Louis XIV had built a hundred years earlier to play the “jeu de paume,” a precursor to tennis, on the recommendation of his physician.

Deputy Jean Joseph Mounier proposed that in response to this insult to their rights, the nation’s representatives take a solemn oath in defense of the public good and national interest. The proposal was received with thunderous applause and the Assembly quickly drew up a decree:

The National Assembly, considering that it has been called to establish the constitution of the realm, to bring about the regeneration of public order, and to maintain the true principles of monarchy; nothing may prevent it from continuing its deliberations in any place it is forced to establish itself; and, finally, the National Assembly exists wherever its members are gathered.

Decrees that all members of this assembly immediately take a solemn oath never to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the realm is established and fixed upon solid foundations; and that said oath having been sworn, all members and each one individually confirm this unwavering resolution with his signature.

The deputies then each “signed” by swearing:

We swear never to separate ourselves from the National Assembly, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the realm is drawn up and fixed upon solid foundations.

This was the first direct confrontation between the revolutionaries and the king. They were still on board with a monarchy, but only as bound by the will of the people. By this oath they declared to Louis XVI that the National Assembly was in service of the public and national good, not the king.

A year after the momentous event, oath-taker Edmond Dubois-Crancé asked his friend painter Jacques-Louis David to commemorate the anniversary with a monumental painting that would put the Tennis Court Oath on the same plane as David’s famed historical works like 1784’s The Oath of the Horatii. David exhibited a preparatory pen-and-ink drawing of his planned painting in 1791, hoping to sell engravings of the drawing via national subscription to raise the 72,000 pounds he needed to complete a painting 33 feet long.

Unfortunately for David, the France of 1791 was very different from that of 1789. Constitutional monarchists were very much not in favor anymore and many of the 1789 heroes were either fired, disgraced or, well, dead, by 1791. The subscription model failed because the public had no interest in celebrating the event. David never finishing the painting and kept it in his workshop until his death in 1825. The unfinished work was cut up into three pieces by his heirs. The largest portion was sold to the state and is now on display in the Chimay attic at Versailles.

The Tennis Court itself became property of the state in 1793 and was closed to the public in 1798. It was used for random purposes — storage, workshop, painter’s studio — for a while and listed as a national historic monument in 1848. Come the Second Empire, the Royal Tennis Court was neglected, its associations no longer appreciated by the powers that be.

The idea of celebrating the Tennis Court Oath came back into favor a century later under the French Third Republic which embraced its revolutionary antecedents. In 1880, July 14th, Bastille Day, was declared the French National Celebration, and the government began to plan for a museum of the Revolution. In 1882, the old Royal Tennis Court, abandoned for decades by that point, was chosen as the spot for the new museum.

It was refurbished by the architect of the Palace of Versailles, Edmond Guillaume. The French government also commissioned a new artist, Luc-Olivier Merson, to make a painting of the Oath based on David’s drawing and unfinished canvas. Ninety-four years to the day after the deputies of the National Assembling took the Tennis Court Oath, the new Museum of the Revolution opened in the Royal Tennis Court complete with a statue and portrait busts of the most important signatories. Above the busts is a band painted on the walls containing the names of all signatories. Beneath the band the walls were painted in rich Pompeian red.

This new vision of the Royal Tennis Court also faded quickly. After the centenary of the oath in 1889, the court was just maintained but not handled with the care it required. There was even talk in the 1930s of converting it into a ping pong room for Senate functionaries who worked at Versailles.

Last year, Versailles undertook a comprehensive restoration program to return the Tennis Court to its 1883 condition when it was reborn as the Museum of the Revolution. Over eight months of work, restorers were able to restore the black cement floor, the Pompeian red wall paint, the names and laurel wreaths and decorative borders on the band, and Merson’s monumental painting.

The room is reopening on Friday after eight months of work, giving the public “a forgotten part of our history,” Catherine Pegard, president of the palace’s public administration, told AFP.

It is dominated by a monumental canvas, also restored, which was based on the famous unfinished work by Jacques-Louis David depicting the signing of the oath.

6th c. grave full of beads found in Basel

Infrastructure work around the Wettsteinplatz district of Basel, Switzerland, has unearthed the richly-furnished 6th century grave of a 12-year-old girl. Since work began in 2021, the remains of several early medieval graves have been discovered, but they had been badly damaged by earlier construction and only a few bones could be retrieved. The little girl’s grave, on the other hand, was well-preserved and replete with grave goods including an iron purse clasp, an iron belt buckle with inlaid stripes of gold and many, many beads.

When the archaeological team realized there were artifacts in the burial, they removed the entire grave in a soil block so it could be excavated in laboratory conditions and without time pressure from the construction schedule. The excavation revealed a dizzying array of glass and amber beads, more than 350 of them in total.

Not only is the large number extraordinary, but also the fascinating variety of types, shapes and colors. Segment beads with inlaid gold and silver foil, for example, testify to a particularly high level of craftsmanship. It can be assumed that the beads were not placed in the tomb individually, but may have belonged to a complex beaded collar or once formed several necklaces. It is also conceivable that individual beads were sewn onto the robe or an enclosed bag.

The 6th century was a busy time for Basel. It had been conquered in the early 5th century by the invading Germanic confederation of the Alemanni, and a century later the Franks took over, but both Alemanni and Frankish settlers prospered in Basel. The city grew in population and influence from that point, overtaking the former Roman provincial capital of Augusta Raurica 12 miles to the west in the 7th century.

There are no written records surviving from this period in Basel’s history, and very little archaeological material, so this one girl’s grave is of oversized significance because of its density of artifacts. There are indications that there are additional graves near the ones that have already been found, so archaeologists hope to uncover more remains as excavations continue to shed new light on the development of early medieval Basel.

Farmer plows up unique Hittite gold bracelet

A 3,300-year-old Hittite bracelet plowed up by a farmer in Çitli village in north central Turkey’s Çorum Province is unique, the first example of a Hittite bracelet made with precious metals that has figural depictions. This is also the only Hittite bracelet with an elliptical bezel, a shape previously only found in Hittite ring seals. After extensive restoration, the bracelet is now on public display for the first time at the Çorum Archaeological Museum.

The farmer discovered the bracelet in 2011 and realized it could be an archaeological artifact. Its advanced age and rediscovery by heavy agricultural machinery had left it in parlous condition. The bracelet was misshapen and in several pieces. He collected all the parts he could find and brought them to the museum in Çorum. Museum experts were able to identify it as a Hittite-era bracelet in the preliminary examination before it was catalogued and conserved. The exact find site was unknown as the farmer had plowed five fields that day and a subsequent archaeological survey of all five of them found no additional artifacts.

The bracelet is made of an alloy of copper, tin and arsenic, and measures 7.1 cm (2.8 inches) in diameter at the widest point. It is formed of a band moulded into an elliptical shape with the tips bent backwards and forged together to make a ring. An electrum plate mounted to the ellipse is ornamented with a relief scene of figures done in the repoussé technique. Framing the scene is a border of semicircles between lines. The plate was broken into four pieces when found; a section of the plate in the center is missing.

The repoussé relief depicts the goddess Ishtar at the center of a libation procession moving inwards from both ends of the plate. The first thing on both the left and right ends of the plate is a small table or altar with curved legs terminating in an animal paw. The tables are draped with a cloth that covers the offerings they bear.

On the left side, the table is followed by two female figures with no facial features processing towards the right, their right arms bent upwards and their left carrying something. Facing them is another figure with more defined features. Her legs are in profile heading rightward, while her torso is positioned frontally. She wears a two-piece garment of skirt and mantle and on her extant right shoulder is a wing. Some of this figure is missing, but the clothing, wing and the two women following her are sufficient to identify her as Ishtar and the two female figures as her attendants Ninatta and Kulitta, a scene that has been found before in Hittite seals and rock reliefs. After the missing section are two more female figures (only the back of the head remains of one of them) facing Ishtar from the right.

Hattusa, capital of the Hittite Empire between 1700 BC and 1200 BC., is 70 miles southwest of the find site. It reached its greatest geographic and population peak during the reign of Suppiluliuma I (ca. 1344–1322 B.C.) right around the time when the bracelet was made.

Iron Age gold neck ring found in Denmark

A one-of-a-kind gold neck ring from the Germanic Iron Age (400-550 A.D.) has been discovered near Ilsted in southern Denmark. The necklace is heavy at 446 grams, a fraction under a pound, and is eight inches wide at the widest point. It is made of one long rod-shaped piece of gold folded over itself at the terminals to create a ring shape. The ends overlap about 1/3rd of the length of the necklace, and a gold plate is soldered to the back of the two rings to create a third canvas for decoration between the two rings.

The overlapping ends of the rod are decorated with crescent-shaped depression  stamped into the gold. The decoration is so meticulously detailed that the crescent shapes on the two rings are ever so slightly different: the crescents on the outer ring have eight decorative divots inside them, the crescents on the inner ones have six. The gold plate has six ribbed gold threads at the bottom,  plaited together two-by-two to create a chevron effect. A spiral twisted gold wire runs down the middle of the plait.

Only ten comparable gold necklaces with stamped embellishment have been found in Denmark, and this is by far the most elaborate, most finely worked of them. It is the only one with a soldered plate with intricate gold thread decoration.

It was discovered by metal detectorist Dan Christensen in October 2021. Christensen works as an archaeological scout for the Southwest Jutland Museums, so when he found the neck ring, he immediately alerted museum staff.  In the week following the discovery, the entire field was scanned with metal detectors in case the ring had been part of a larger grouping of precious objects scattered by agricultural activity. (Previous examples of neck rings from this period have been found in pairs.) Nothing turned up.

A subsequent full excavation of the find site revealed evidence of a settlement under a thin layer of plow soil, including roof-bearing post holes from multiple three-nave longhouses dating to between 300 and 600 A.D. The neck ring was found inside one of the longhouses. It was recovered from below the plow layer, so archaeologists believe it was buried where it was found.

This is an unusual context for gold neck rings, as most of them have been found in wetlands where they were deposited as votive offerings to the gods. The find site is on a promontory surrounded by bogs on three sides, so the fact that this necklace was buried inside a longhouse when wetlands were available a few steps away in every direction suggest it was being deliberately hidden to keep it safe during a period of danger or unrest but the owner was never able to retrieve it.