Explore Richard III’s grave in 3D

March 22nd, 2016

It’s been a year since the mortal remains of King Richard III were reinterred in Leicester Cathedral. Archaeologists from the University of Leicester are ushering in the anniversary with a 3D reconstruction of Richard III’s grave as it was when it was first fully excavated in September of 2012.

Photographs from the excavation were run through Agisoft PhotoScan software which processes images photogrammetrically to generate a 3D digital model. The software looks for shared elements in overlapping photographs which are then plotted onto a 3D point cloud. The cloud is converted into a polygon mesh and the photos applied to it so the topographic layout has a photorealistic surface.

Mathew Morris, Site Supervisor for University of Leicester Archaeological Services was the man who first discovered the remains of King Richard III on the first day of the dig under the Leicester car park. He said: “Photographs and drawings of the grave, whilst dramatic, are only two-dimensional and do not always best show nuances in spatial relationships that a three-dimensional model can.

“Photogrammetry provides a fantastic analytical tool that allows us to examine the grave from angles that would have been physically difficult or impossible to achieve during the excavation, and gives us the ability to continue to examine the king’s grave long after the excavation has finished.”

It also artfully conveys how shoddy a grave it was. It’s too short for one, which is particularly half-assed when you consider that Richard’s spinal curvature made him shorter than average. (Without the scoliosis, he would have been 5’8″ tall, about average height for the time. The S-curve in his spine knocked a couple of inches off his height.) The sides of the grave were not dug straight, but with sloping sides. The bottom of the grave was uneven. You can see on the 3D model just how restricted the space was, how the body leans towards one side like when you’re way too old to have to sleep in a twin bed and the head is propped up uncomfortably.

The interactive model has been uploaded to the 3D sharing platform Sketchfab. There are five points of note marked out — his skull with its war wounds, his curved spine, his missing feet, lost when a pit intersecting with the unknown grave was dug centuries later, the titled head indicating the grave was too short for the body and the sloped sides emphasizing how carelessly the grave was dug. There’s very little content, but when you click on one of the numbers, the view shifts in a neat way. It’s fascinating to see the grave from every possible angle, as if you were lying underneath it, above it, inside it or next to it.

King Richard III's grave
by Archaeological Services (ULAS)
on Sketchfab

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“Joan of Arc” ring unveiled at French theme park

March 21st, 2016

The ring purported to have belonged to Joan of Arc that was sold at auction last month for $412,845 is back in France. Its new home is the Puy du Fou theme park in the Vendée region of western France where the ring was unveiled with great pomp on Sunday by the park founder Philippe de Villiers before a crowd of 5,000.

The theme of Puy du Fou is French history through the centuries. Visitors can enjoy gladiatorial combat and real live quadriga races at the Gallo-Roman stadium, the traditional crafts in the medieval city, the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table complete with dragon slaying and enchanted lake, a Viking longship attack on a wooden keep, a working mill and musicians in the 18th century village, the bird of prey show in a ruined castle, a joust and tricks from horseback knights, the vicissitudes of a French naval officer fresh from the Revolutionary War in America to the French Revolution, a swashbuckling 17th century adventure of the dastardly Richelieu versus the King’s Musketeers, a Belle Epoque city ca. 1900, a fire fountain show on the lake at night and much more.

This party-time version of the past is a fitting setting for the ring because there are widespread doubts as to its authenticity. An Oxford University laboratory dated the ring to the 15th century based on its style, wear and engraving, but that’s as close as it gets to any actual facts linking this jewelry to the Maid of Orléans. They share a century. That’s all we know for sure. The long track record of ownership history included with the ring is entirely speculative. It’s based solely on the fact that Lady Ottoline Morrell’s ancestry can be traced back to Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was present at the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. There are no references in archives or histories that mention the ring being owned by anyone in the family at any time between 1431 and when it first appears on the historical record in 1914.

On the advice of experts, neither the town of Orléans nor the Joan of Arc Historical Exhibition in Rouen bid for the ring. There are many fake Joan of Arc relics out there, and the association of this particular piece with Joan only dates to the early 20th century when there was a revival of Joanmania. Philippe de Villiers is no museum curator, however, and he insists despite the lack of evidence that the ring is unquestionably authentic. As a politician, leader of the conservative Movement for France party, he is keen to claim Joan and there’s a hefty portion of nationalism underpinning this acquisition. At Sunday’s unveiling he said “It’s a little bit of France that has returned. The ring has come back to France and will stay here,” then launched into a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise.

He was putting Britain on notice there. Appropriately enough, the export of the ring has sparked a war, of words this time, between the British and French. When the auctioneers gave the ring to park lawyers, they informed them that an export license would have to be secured before the ring could leave the country. Any antiquity worth more than £39,219 that has been in the UK for more than 50 years requires a special export license issued by the Culture Minister. The license is only issued after the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) gives the Minister its recommendation, and in the case of this ring, it’s highly unlikely that they would have let it walk away without temporarily blocking export to give British institutions the chance to raise the purchase price and keep it in the country.

Philippe de Villiers has no intention of returning the ring, illegally exported or no, a position he made very clear at Sunday’s ceremony.

“The British government has sent our lawyer an unprecedented demand: the return of the ring to London,” Mr de Villers told the shocked throng. [...] “Is the ring part of England’s national heritage?,” he asked the crowd, which booed loudly. Cheers erupted, however, when he asked whether it was part of France’s heritage.

Mr De Villiers claimed that he had checked the rules and found they only apply if the object is taken out of the European Union. In a mocking nod to Britain’s upcoming referendum over whether to remain or leave the EU, he told the crowd: “It is not at all our intention to have a Puy de Fou exit.”

In a final flourish, he laid down the gauntlet by stating: “Ladies and gentlemen from Britain, if you want to see the ring, then come to the Puy de Fou. For the rest it’s too late.” “The ring has returned to France and here it will stay…even if the European Commission orders it back.”

So much ado about a very questionable artifact. I have to admit, though, as theme parks go, even with its inherently inaccurate, sanitized, kid-friendly, way too clean version of history, it’s pretty cool. I am all over that quadriga race.

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Update: St Eric’s wounds consistent with legend

March 20th, 2016

On April 23rd, 2014, researchers from Uppsala University opened a reliquary casket in Uppsala Cathedral to study the bones of King Eric IX of Sweden, the patron saint of Stockholm. The primary goal was to compare medieval remains to modern ones looking for changes in bone density for an interdisciplinary osteoporosis study, but while they were in the neighborhood, the research team examined the skeletal remains in the hopes of answering some questions about his national origins, health, diet and violent death.

The University has now released the first results of the study of Eric’s bones, and so far the osteological evidence is remarkably congruent with the stories told about him at least a century after his death. Since no contemporary writings about him have survived and the later histories are hagiographies that frame him as a saint in life, a martyr in death and a miracle-worker after death, it’s hard to know what’s fact and what’s legend. The study attempted DNA extraction and analysis, performed stable isotope analysis of his teeth, did a forensic examination of the bones looking for ante-mortem and perimortem wounds, radiocarbon dated the bones and enlisted orthopaedists and radiologists to determine his vital statistics and state of health.

There are 24 bones in the casket, 23 of them from the same person, plus one random shinbone. The group of 23 are the bones of a man about 35-40 years old who was 171 centimeters tall (5’7″). CT scans found no medical conditions evident on the bones. He did not have osteoporosis or suffer any kind of bone loss. On the contrary, his bone density was 25% greater than the average young man today. Eric was strong and very physically fit. Radiocarbon dating results are consistent with his having died in 1160.

Stable isotope analysis found one reason for his excellent health: he ate a great deal of freshwater fish. Kings had access to a great quantity and variety of animal protein, thanks to plentiful game and freshwater fish available on great estates. Eric ate both land animal protein and fish but emphasized the latter.This conforms to accounts of him in the hagiographies which describe him as fasting often out of religious devotion. Fasting in the Middle Ages didn’t require abstention from all food. It was usually meat that was excised from the diet, sometimes extended to animals products — butter, milk, cheese, eggs — during penitential seasons like Lent. The more extreme strictures were primarily observed by monks or individual ascetics. For lay Christians over most of the liturgical calendar, there were three fast days: Wednesday (the day Judas took 30 pieces of silver to betray Christ), Friday (the day Christ was crucified) and Saturday (the day dedicated to the Virgin Mary). Game birds like swan and peacock that only the aristocracy had access to were exempt from the no-meat rule.

Wounds on his bones also seem to fit the stories about Eric. His cranium had one or two healed wounds, possibly inflicted by sharp weapons. He fought a war, some call it a crusade, against pagan Finland, which would have afforded him plenty of opportunities for this kind of injury. The unhealed wounds inflicted at the time of his death match his story even better.

The saint’s legend says that in the king’s final battle, the enemy swarmed him, and when he fell to the ground they gave him wound after wound until he lay half dead. They then taunted him and finally cut off his head. The remaining bones have at least nine cuts inflicted in connection with death, seven of them on the legs. No wounds have been found on the ribs or the remaining arm bone, which probably means that the king wore a hauberk but had less protected legs. Both shin bones have cuts inflicted from the direction of the feet, indicating that the victim lay on his front.

A neck vertebra has been cut through, which could not have been done without removing the hauberk, i.e. not during battle. This confirms that there was an interlude, as described by the taunting in the legend, between battle and decapitation. At no point do the documented wounds gainsay the account of the fight given by the much later legend.

One thing that contradicts the hagiographies was an isotope analysis finding that suggests he spent the last decade of his life not in Uppsala, but in the southern province of Västergötland. This is only a preliminary finding, however, since stable isotopes have to be compared to previously recorded values in order to determine geographic locations and there’s still a lot of comparing to be done.

DNA analysis is still pending as well. Researchers were able to extract DNA samples successfully, which is a major hurdle to leap when dealing with 900-year-old bones. The DNA analysis is expected to take another year. They have DNA from King Magnus III of Sweden (reigned 1275-1290) who was descended from Eric IX through his mother Ingeborg. They will be compared to confirm the bones are indeed Eric’s.

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Buckle from British Isles found in Danish Viking grave

March 19th, 2016

A buckle of Scottish or Irish origin has been discovered in the grave of a Viking woman in Enghøj on central Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. The gilt bronze disc is a small piece of six centimeters (2.4 inches) with a Greek key-like geometric pattern that was made in the 9th century. The woman who took it with her to the grave died in the 10th century, so it was already decades, maybe even a century, old when it was buried in Denmark. She used it to keep her petticoat together.

Archaeologist Ernst Stidsing from the Museum East Jutland realized right away that it was a very unusual piece. He’d never seen anything like it before, so he sent pictures to Emerita Professor Else Roesdahl of Aarhus University. She had never seen anything like it either. Stidsing shared the pictures with English and German colleagues and they agreed that it was made in the British Isles. Having only the ornamentation to go on, the experts disagreed on whether it was of Irish manufacture or from southern Scotland.

They were certain that it didn’t start out as a buckle or brooch. It was a fitting from a shrine of some kind, stripped off a wooden box used to hold sacred objects. It’s therefore not a trade piece. Monasteries and churches weren’t in the practice of prying the decoration off their reliquaries and selling them to Vikings. This was acquired in a raid.

Viking loot from Britain and Ireland is very rare in Denmark, all the more so in a grave. It’s more common, albeit still a rarity, in Norway, where several examples have been discovered. A reliquary and fragment of an English 8th or 9th century crozier were found in the grave of a Viking woman in Romsdal, Norway, in 1961. A direct parallel, a Celtic disc, also originated in Scotland or Ireland as decoration on a shrine or reliquary. The Vikings converted into a brooch and it was buried the grave of a high-status woman in Lilleberge, Norway, in the 9th-10th century. It was unearthed in 1886 but kept in a soil block and only fully excavated and identified a few years ago.

Ernst Stidsing thinks there may have been a Norwegian connection for the Enghøj buckle.

“It could have been [brought by] a Norwegian woman who came to Denmark with her jewellery, and lived and died there,” says Stidsing.

He now hopes that strontium isotope analysis of the woman’s teeth could clear up where she came from.

“I’m pretty excited about the outcome of the analysis,” says Stidsing. “Especially as the Norwegian Vikings were often on expeditions to the north of England. It’s exciting that a woman may have come from Norway and have lived part of her life in Jutland [west Denmark].”

“It will confirm the picture that we were already [living] in a globalised world back then,” he says.

That picture was solidly confirmed most recently when Egtved Girl, the Bronze Age young woman whose exceptionally preserved burial complete with hollowed out tree trunk coffin, clothing, grave goods, textiles and accessories has become a Danish icon since its discovery in 1921, was actually from Southern Germany. Egtved Girl was a very important person even though she was only 16-18 years old when she died, a priestess or a dynastic bride, and it’s known that there were marriages between Danish kings and Slavic princesses starting in the 10th century. The woman who was buried with the buckle had status and wealth, but she wasn’t a princess. If isotope analysis finds that she was from Norway or somewhere else other than Denmark, it will give new insight into how mobile Vikings were at various social levels.

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35,000-year-old Twitter logo found in France

March 18th, 2016

In 2003, a salvage excavation in advance of highway construction in the Dordogne region of southwestern France discovered a dense group of prehistoric occupations, 10 sites in an area of less than two square miles. One of them, Cantalouette II, is an open-air site that was used as a flint workshop, as evidenced by the large quantity of flakes and knapping debris. There are seven layers, ranging in date from the Middle Pleistocene to the Holocene. In the Aurignacian layer (35,000 – 31,000 years old), archaeologists found a remarkably naturalistic bird (pdf) engraved on a flint flake. Other engraved flakes were found at the site, but none of them were figurative. In fact, this is the first example of figurative art discovered in an open-air Aurignacian site.

The bird is depicted with its head raised and its wings open, parallel lines representing the feathers. The beak is short, thin and pointed. A single eye is visible with a small line underneath that may represent an undereye feature. A projection on the left side of the bird may be the legs or the tail. It’s a capture of dynamic action, a bird in the moment of drinking, courting or about to take flight. Or express itself it in 140 characters.

Another unique feature of this piece, besides a silhouette so reminiscent of Internet-era iconography, is the style of engraving. Usually artwork from the Upper Paleolithic period is an incised outline. Some of the details may give the impression of relief and in very rare cases actual reliefs have been found, like the friezes of the Roc-de-Sers rock shelter (ca. 17,000 B.C.). The bird of Cantalouette II, however, is the opposite of the Roc-de-Sers animals in that it was made by the removal of the material inside the figure, not by the carving away of material outside of it leaving a high relief behind.

This sunken relief is unique among the Aurignacian artworks. The technique has never been seen before. To better understand the engraving process, researchers recreated it experimentally and found it was completed in six phases. First the outline was incised, then the interior was scraped with stone tool that left a wavy surface. The third step was adding detail to the head and beak with an L-shaped bevel. Another bevel was then engraved to add dimension to the upper left wing area. In phase five, the artist micro-pecked the inside of the head giving it a distinctive rough surface that conveys the different type of feathers birds have on their heads as opposed to their wings. Lastly, the eye and the subciliar line were added.

Also rare is the subject matter. Upper Paleolithic animal figures are more often land-based — horses, bovines, ibex, bison — and while birds have been found before, including the fragment of an outline bird figure at Roc-de-Sers, none of them are so naturalistic and detailed. Roc-de-Sers dates to the Magdalenian period of the Upper Paleolithic, thousands of years after the Cantalouette II bird was carved. Narrowing it down specifically to the Aurignacian period, there are only two other known birds: an ivory water bird from Hohle Fels (ca. 39,000-34,000 years old) and an owl in the Chauvet cave. Neither of them have the same attention to detail as the Cantalouette II bird. Because of those details, experts were able to compare its features to birds found in the fossil record of Upper Paleolithic southwestern France. The likeliest candidates are the passerine, the wryneck or partridge/quail.

After all this trouble, the piece was simply discarded onto the pile of lithic fragments, the detritus of the prehistoric tool-making workshop. It wasn’t meant to be permanent like rock art on walls. It wasn’t even meant to be portable, like something pretty to wear or display. It seems to have been the artistic impulse of a flint knapper who, having completed his oeuvre, threw it away.

This engraving is distinct in the rarity of the animal depicted and the use of innovative techniques. They suggest an absence of rigid artistic traditions and techniques during the Aurignacian. This absence of canons is in fact characteristic of Aurignacian art, despite certain convergences, such as the depiction of dangerous animals in the Swabian Jura, Dordogne, Adèche and northern Italy. At the doline site of Cantalouette II, the artist was thus free to “test” other manners of representing volumes and outlines. The artistic liberty of this artist can be correlated with that of the Aurignacian flint knappers in the Bergeracois region, who surpassed their technical skills by producing unusually large blades. The object itself, discarded in a flint knapping workshop, suggests the existence of an ephemeral form of artistic expression, a behavior previously unknown in the Aurignacian, and which raises questions about the function of the earliest figurative art in Europe.

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Torlonia collection to see the light after 40 years in the basement

March 17th, 2016

One of the most important private collections of ancient sculpture in the world hasn’t been on display in four decades. In fact, it really hasn’t been on public display since the 19th century. The Torlonia family’s collection of antiquities, 620 world-class Greek, Roman and Etruscan statues and sarcophagi, has been favorably compared without hyperbole to the ancient sculpture collections of the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, and the Italian government has tried for years to craft an agreement with the family that would allow these unique treasures to be seen by the public. On Tuesday, March 15th, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced that the long-sought agreement has been reached and about 60-90 of the most important pieces in the Torlonia collection will go on display in 2017. The details haven’t been worked out yet, but the likely venue will be the Palazzo Caffarelli Clementino on the Capitoline Hill.

The Torlonia family are new, by Roman standards. The founder was Marino Torlonia, born Marin Tourlonias in Auvergne, France, in 1725. He moved to Rome and became the manservant of powerful Neopolitan cardinal Troiano Acquaviva d’Aragona, best remembered today for having employed Giacomo Casanova in 1744 only to dismiss him when he was discovered hiding a teenaged runaway in the cardinal’s residence on the Piazza di Spagna. Acquaviva died in 1747, leaving Marino Torlonia an inheritance which he used to set himself up as a textile merchant.

The business was successful and Marino parlayed some of his income into a small lending concern. When he helped Pope Pius VI with some pesky financial matters, he was granted the title of duke. It was his son Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia who took both businesses and ran with them. He made savvy deals with the French occupiers under Napoleon and when the French troops left after the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Giovanni was flush with cash, cash the old noble families distinctly lacked. The Banco Marino Torlonia was delighted to loan them money with their estates and furnishings as collateral.

Pope Pius VII granted Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia a princely title in 1814, the first of many. Just two generations removed from Marin Tourlonias, the Torlonia family was one of the richest in Rome, as ennobled as it could be and, thanks to advantageous marriages, related to some of the greatest noble houses of the city — the Colonna, Orsini and Borghese. When those loans went into default, the Torlonia family accumulated lands and artworks by the cartload, including pieces from the Orisini, Cesarini and Caetani-Ruspoli families and a prized 17th century collection of ancient sculptures from the Giustiniani family.

Not that they needed the loan collateral to make out like bandits. After the upheaval of the Napoleonic period, many noble families were compelled to sell their properties and private collections. The great collection of dedicated antiquarian Cardinal Alessandro Albani was sold along with his Roman palace, Villa Albani, to the Chigi family who in turn sold it to the Torlonia. Giovanni also bought more than a thousands pieces from the estate of sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, among which were important sculptures Cavaceppi had acquired from the collections of the Savelli, Cesi and Pio da Carpi families.

Their extensive property holdings proved invaluable sources of ancient statuary as well. Draining swamps and developing lands, the Torlonia unearthed antiquities hand over fist, particularly from the man-made Roman harbour of Portus, the town of Fiumicino where Leonardo da Vinci Airport now stands, and the ancient Etruscan cities of Vulci and Cerveteri

In 1859, Giovanni’s son Alessandro founded a private museum in one of their palaces on the Via della Lungara. The sculptures, including about a hundred Roman portrait busts from the late Republican and Imperial period so prized many scholars consider them superior to the busts in the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, were installed in the 77 rooms of the palace. Already by the 1870s the public was not allowed inside the museum. I can’t confirm whether they ever were, for that matter. Alessandro Torlonia granted access only to his aristocratic friends and occasionally to experts. The collection was catalogued repeatedly in the 1870s and 1880s. Some of the catalogues were illustrated with photographs, among the first in Italy to be printed with pictures instead of drawings. (here’s a text-only example from 1881)

In the 1960s and 1970s, the collection was gradually packed up and stored, perhaps in other Torlonia properties, perhaps in the basement of the old museum. Another Alessandro Torlonia, great-grandson of the museum’s founder, got permission from the government to repair the roof, but those repairs proved to be a smokescreen for an illegal subdivision of the palace into 90 tiny apartments. A 1979 judgement from Italy’s supreme court of appeals found that the sculptures had been stored in “narrow, insufficient, dangerous spaces [...] removed from the museum [...] crammed together in unbelievable fashion, leaned against each other without care for consistency or history.” The court ruled that the private owner should pay a fine to the state equal to the value lost or diminished by this dire, careless treatment of cultural patrimony. That ruling was never enforced.

With tension between the state and the family, the past 40 years have seen many long negotiations go nowhere. Finally the parties have managed to come together, although the vast majority of the Torlonia sculptures will not be on display, at least not right away. I hope this is just a first step. None of these works should be gathering dust in basements.

The history of this collection, how it was amassed from acquisitions, debt collections and excavations on Torlonia properties, may be a central theme of the first exhibition. It’s particularly relevant to the Torlonia collection as opposed to some of the older ones built gradually by noble families over the course of centuries. The way entire collections were absorbed by the Torlonia makes for a unique perspective into the history of antiquities collection in Rome, with built-in organizational divisions, like, for instance, the pieces from the Cavaceppi collection in one section, the pieces from the Giustiniani collection in another. The sculptures unearthed on Torlonia estates could be in another section.

Again, it’s still in the early stages, but the Ministry is hoping to make this a traveling exhibition. After the Roman show, the treasures of the Torlonia collection will go to top museums in Europe and the United States. Eventually a permanent place will be found for it back home in Rome.

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Gardener finds Denmark’s oldest figure of Christ

March 16th, 2016

Landscape gardener Dennis Fabricius Holm picked up his first metal detector just two and a half months ago. It was his son’s, a Christmas present he’d gotten years before and never used. Holm fished it out of the basement and took it to the empty field next door to his home in the village of Aunslev on the Danish island of Funen to do a few hours of scanning every Friday afternoon. He found some buttons and small coins, nothing to write home about.

Last Friday, March 11th, Holm found something to write history books about. In an area of the field he hadn’t scanned before, his machine alerted him to a metallic object not made of iron. A mere four inches under the surface he found a little gold pendant 3.5 centimeters (1.4 inches) wide and 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) high, weighing 14 grams. The artifact’s fine filigree showed through the caked dirt. Excited about his find, Holm posted pictures of it on a Facebook page for Danish metal detector enthusiasts and was quickly deluged with congratulations.

He contacted Malene Refshauge Beck, an archaeologist and curator at the East Funen Museums, who identified it as a crucifix from the first half of the 10th century. That makes it the oldest figure of Christ ever discovered in Denmark. Before this find, the Christ figure engraved on the largest Jelling Stone, a massive runestone raised by Harald Bluetooth in around 965 A.D., was the oldest known in Denmark. It was a fitting record for a stone whose runic inscription reads: “King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.”

The pendant could be dated with such precision because it is almost identical to a pendant found in Sweden. The first crucifix of this design was unearthed in 1879 from grave 660 in a Viking cemetery at Birka, an 8th century town about 20 miles west of Stockholm. The earliest Christian missionaries who went to Sweden in the 9th century were centered in Birka. The town was destroyed in the 10th century and never rebuilt. Its ruins were rediscovered by an entomologist, Hjalmar Stolpe, who was there to study ancient insects trapped in amber. When he found large quantities of non-native amber on the island, he realized it must have once been an important trading center and so began archaeological excavations that would continue for almost 25 years, from 1871 through 1895.

A fragmentary second crucifix of the Birka type has survived. Their designs are so similar that archaeologists believe they were made by the same craftsman. East Funen Museums archaeologists will now contact their counterparts at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, where the original Birka crucifix is kept. The two crosses will be compared to determine whether they were made by the same hand.

The Aunslev crucifix is the most precious of the three. The first Birka crucifix is gilded silver with much of the gilding worn off. The fragmentary second one is silver. Holm’s find is solid gold. The goldsmith shaped a thin gold wire in parallel lines and small balls called granulation. It would have been a very expensive piece, likely worn by a woman.

Christianity was introduced to Denmark via the elite so this pendant probably belonged to someone wealthy and influential. Whether that person was Christian is impossible to know since the piece was found in a field, not in a grave like the others. Wearing a crucifix could be advantageous when dealing with the already Christianized peoples south of Denmark, and even if the wearer did espouse Christian beliefs, at this stage the new faith often coexisted with the traditional one of Thor and Odin. Indeed, Christ’s expression on the crucifix is not the one of a suffering man near death, but rather of a fearless warrior akin to the Norse heroes and deities.

The pendant is now at the Viking Museum in Ladby where it will be cleaned and conserved. It will be put on display this summer.

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Shipwreck from Vasco da Gama’s 2nd voyage to India found

March 15th, 2016

A rare early shipwreck from Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India (1502-1503) has been discovered off the coast of Oman. It is the earliest Age of Discovery ship ever found and thanks to its remote location, archaeologists got there first.

Portugal sent ships on an annual journey to India, the Carreira da India, since Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route in 1498. It was a long, arduous, and very dangerous journey in the open ocean down the full length of west Africa, across the Cape of Good Hope, north up the east coast to Mombasa, modern-day Kenya, then across the Indian Ocean to Calicut (Kozhikode) in southern India. Many ships and men were lost on the India Route — one study found 219 ships were wrecked between 1498 and 1650 — and yet, very few shipwrecks have been discovered, and the few that have been were stripped bare by looters before archaeologists had a chance to explore them.

Without their contents, ships area difficult to date. The earliest Carreira da India wreck that could be conclusively dated is the São João which sank in 1552. The lack of an archaeological record for those first 54 years have left a large gap in our understanding of the early Portuguese trade to and from India. Hoping to find a wreck from that 54-year gap, researchers scoured archives looking for the possible location of two ships — the Esmeralda and São Pedro — that sank during Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India in 1503. The two ships were captained by Vicente and Brás Sodré, brothers and da Gama’s maternal uncles, and led an independent squadron in the fleet that had separate military orders directly from Portuguese King Dom Manuel I to “make war against the ships of Meca” on the Malabar coast and corner the spice trade.

In 1503, after da Gama had returned to Portugal with the bulk of the fleet, the Sodrés went above and beyond their orders, leaving the Indian Ocean for the Gulf of Aden where they attacked and pillaged Arab ships of their cargoes of spices, prized textiles, sugar and rice. When one of the lead ships needed repairs, the squadron was moored off an island now known as Al Hallaniyah, 28 miles from the south coast of Oman. A violent storm broke them to pieces. Everyone on the Esmeralda died, including commander Vicente Sodré. Brás Sodré and most of his crew survived the wreck of the São Pedro, although Brás died a short time later of unknown causes.

The Sodré squadron’s special status, military adventurism/piracy and the demise of the lead ships made for an especially rich documentary record with multiple extant accounts of the voyage and wrecks, including an eye-witness report from the captain of another ship in the squadron. The research determined that the island where the ships had wrecked was likely Al Hallaniyah. Based on the findings, a 1998 expedition searched the area and found dozens of round stone shot and lead-iron shot typical of 16th century heavily armed ships.

The remoteness of the location made a full investigation difficult. It wasn’t until 2013 that shipwreck recovery experts Bluewater Recoveries Ltd. partnered with the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture to excavate the site. A geophysical survey was followed by an extremely complex excavation and artifact recovery project which ultimately retrieved 1911 objects. The ship itself is gone. The hull and masts were torn apart by the storm, and the squadron crew burned the ships after salvaging whatever they could.

Between 2013 and 2015, excavators found Portuguese, Chinese, Persian and West African ceramics which roughly dated the ship to between 1450 and 1550, a large quantity of ordnance, including 19 copper-alloy and one iron breech chambers, three handgun barrels, 91 handmade stone shot, a copper-alloy disc with the Portuguese royal coat of arms and the armillary sphere that was Don Manuel I’s personal shield from before he was king, and coins, including 12 gold Portuguese cruzados, 11 from the reign of Dom Manuel I and one from the reign of his predecessor Dom João II. One of the coins was instrumental in narrowing down the date of the wreck . It’s a silver índio, a type of coin first struck in 1499 and discontinued by 1504. They were explicitly produced for the Portuguese trade in India and because they were minted for such a short time, they are extremely rare. This is only the second one known to exist.

Another great archaeological jackpot was the discovery the ship’s bell. CT scanning found the letter M and the numbers 498 on the bell. The numbers are what’s left of the date — 1498 — of the ship’s construction and the M was the key clue to identifying the ship as likely being the Esmeralda. This is the oldest ship’s bell ever found. Here it is being excavated:

Here’s a CT scan of it:

Here it is all cleaned up and conserved:

There are more videos and information on the website dedicated to the shipwreck of the Esmeralda. The full interim report on the find can be read here.

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First ancient wood caissons found in Corinth harbour

March 14th, 2016

The ancient Greek city-state of Corinth was fortuitously located on the well-traveled isthmus that connects the Peloponnese peninsula to mainland Greece, but it was three miles inland. To take advantage of its central position on the narrow isthmus, Corinth built two ports: Lechaion to the north for maritime trade headed west towards Italy and Kenchreai to the south for maritime trade headed east towards Asia Minor and Egypt. Corinth’s control of the isthmus ensured it remained a dominant economic and military power in the region from classical Greece through the Byzantine period.

The harbour town of Lechaion on the Gulf of Corinth, therefore, was a prosperous hub of Mediterranean maritime trade for more than 1,000 years, in continuous use from the 6th century B.C. to the 6th century A.D. The remains of the ancient harbour are underwater now and until recently were barely explored. The Lechaion Harbour Project (LHP), an international collaboration between the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Institute at Athens, seeks to remedy this oversight. Their marine archaeologists have been exploring the ruins of Lechaion for the past two years, while geologists use the latest technology to do a geophysical survey of the seabed. The newly developed 3D parametric sub-bottom profiler will allow them to capture 3D images of structures hidden underneath the sand.

Last year, the LHP team discovered massive squared blocks that were once part of two monumental piers, a smaller pier, a breakwater, the stone-lined entrance canal into the inner harbor basins and most remarkably, the remains of six wooden caissons. The Lechaion caissons were large wooden barges laden with concrete which were floated out to a specific area and deliberately sunk together to create a breakwater to protect moored ships and their cargoes from wind and surf. All together the surviving caissons are 57 meters (187 feet) long.

Roman imperial engineers employed a similar technology on a large scale at Caesarea Maritima in Israel in the late first century BC, but these are the first of their kind ever discovered in Greece with their wooden elements still preserved. A preliminary C-14 carbon date places the caissons in the time frame of the Leonidas Basilica, the largest Christian church of its time. Construction of the basilica began in the middle of the 5th century AD. It was 180 meters long – about the same size as the first building phase of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Scholars generally assume that harbour facilities in the Mediterranean were built in the Greek and Roman period, then simply repaired and maintained during the Byzantine period. The discovery of the mole constructed of wooden caissons challenges this picture.

Through no fault of its own, the newly discovered Byzantine construction was not long-lived. Lechaion was destroyed in the late 6th or early 7th century A.D. It’s an archaeological miracle that any part of the caissons survived. The warm water and high salt concentration of the Mediterranean make it a paradise for woodworm. They can devour wood and other organic materials in a matter of months. Before this discovery, only traces of the presence of caissons have been found, the wood itself having long since decayed.

Danish archaeologist Bjorn Lovén of the University of Copenhagen first spotted the caissons on a dive.

“I swam in full diving equipment and suddenly saw lots of planks and poles on the sea bed, and my heart skipped a beat. First I was skeptical, because it was almost too good to be true. But deep down I knew, that it had to be antique wood for building, since no one [built] harbours that way later on. Still I was in doubt, until we got it confirmed.”

The wood is in shockingly good condition, which gives the archaeologists hope they’ll find more organic material in the inner and outer harbour, maybe even one of the Holy Grails of maritime archaeology: the trireme, a warship with three banks of oars which was instrumental in Greece’s victory in the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century B.C. Ancient sources like Thucydides, Pliny and Diodorus Siculus claim triremes were invented in Corinth. Thucydides notes in The History of the Peloponnesian War that the Corinthian shipbuilder Ameinokles made four of them for the Samians in the 8th century B.C. The ruins of trireme shipsheds have been found at the ancient Athenian harbour of Piraeus, but not the ships themselves. The discovery of so much surviving wood from the caissons makes it a possibility, albeit a very remote one, that the LHP team might one day find the remains of a trireme.

There are some great views of the wood caissons in this video:

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London Stone will finally gets it due again

March 13th, 2016

London Stone doesn’t look like much. It’s an irregular chunk of oolitic limestone hidden behind a grate on the footing of a 1960s building on Cannon Street. A bronze plaque above the grating is the only hint that it’s worth peering through penumbra to the object within. To actually see the stone, you had to go inside whatever business was occupying the storefront — at various times a Bank of China branch, a sporting goods store and most recently a WH Smith — and look into a knee-high glass case. The case wasn’t even visible when it was in a WH Smith because it was blocked by a magazine rack.

Yet, this unpreposessing rock has an illustrious history. Its origins are unknown, and that mystery has birthed uncounted legends, rumors and myths, most of them invented in the past 150 years. It’s been said to be the stone from which Arthur drew the sword that made him king, a druidic altar, a piece of the palace of the Roman governor of Londinium, the plinth for the Palladium brought to the city by Brutus of Troy, legendary founder of London, and a fetish stone installed by the first prehistoric settlers of what would become London. A slightly more realistic theory is that it was the milliarium of Roman London, the stone marker in the precise center of the city from which all the miles in Britain were counted.

There’s no more evidence for the plausible theories than for the fantastical ones. The stone appears on the historical record in the Middle Ages. It was installed on the south side of what was then known as Candlewick Street (Cannon Street isn’t about the weapon; it’s just the end-product of centuries of usage alterations from the original Candelwrichstrete), held to the ground with large iron clamps. Most of it was below the surface.

A gospel given by Æthelstan (924–939), the first king to rule of all of England including the Viking north, to Christ Church, Canterbury, has a reference to a piece of land belonging to the church that is “neer unto London Stone.” That suggests London Stone was famous enough already in the 10th century to be used as an identifying landmark, and it continued to be a key geographical reference for centuries. A document from the reign of Stephen (1135-1154) records a fire starting at a house “neere unto London Stone.” It is repeatedly mentioned in official records to describe the locations of buildings. It was also a popular moniker for people who lived in the neighborhood (a certain John de Londenston stabbed his wife Agnes in 1241) and for drinking and eating establishments. There was an Old London Stone Coffee House, a London Stone Tavern and a London Stone Eating House which was said to be the first house built after the 1666 Great Fire of London.

It wasn’t just a convenient marker; it was held in high esteem. A house on the north side of St Swithin’s church, the home of London’s first Mayor Henry Fitz Aylwin and the seat of government from 1189 to 1212, was considered highly prestigious because it was near the stone. Jack Cade, leader of a popular rebellion against King Henry VI in 1450, entered London on July 3rd and made a point of going to London Stone where he struck it with his sword and declared himself lord of the city. Shakespeare describes it colorfully in Henry VI, Part 2:

[Enter JACK CADE and the rest, and strikes his staff on London-stone.]
CADE: “Now is Mortimer lord of this city. And here, sitting upon London-stone, I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign.

(Cade claimed descendance from the powerful Mortimer family.)

After the Great Fire leveled much of the city, the stone’s foundations were exposed for the first time in hundreds of years. Its large dimensions suggested London Stone must have been part of a monumental feature of some kind. The fire may also have damaged it, cracking it apart. Five years after the fire, the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers was compelled by court order to destroy a faulty batch of 264 pairs of eyeglasses by dashing them against London Stone. The guild’s records say they were broken “on the remayning parte of London Stone.”

By 1742 the stone was obstructing traffic in what was then a narrow lane, so it was moved to the north end of the street and installed in the wall next to the door of St. Swithin’s church. In A Journey from Birmingham to London (1785) by W. Hutton, the author observes that the residents pay little attention to the stone.

The small information received from history and the smaller from tradition, prove its great antiquity. This curiosity is as little regarded as known. The numerous crowd of passengers take less notice of this stone than of those upon which they tread. My enquiries were answered with a supercilious smile, and all the intelligence I could gain was, “It is a place of rest for the porters burden.” [...]

This Stone appears of a marble texture near four feet high, two broad, and one thick. An ornament at the top is broken off. In the front is an oval aperture or recess two feet long, at the bottom of which is a broken fragment which has supported perhaps an image or urn, expressive of the original design. Time seems to have destroyed the lower part of the oval, and art has supplied the place with a patch.

In 1798, the stone was moved again to the east side of St. Swithin’s south wall and in 1820 it was set into an alcove in the center of the south wall. It rested there for 120 years, a much-visited tourist attraction. Then came World War II and the Blitz. St. Swithin’s was destroyed, but the walls, and the stone embedded in one of them, still stood. The ruins of the church were finally demolished in 1962 and the current building was erected with the sad, gloomy little grilled out alcove as the ignominious dwelling for the former celebrity stone.

Now that building too is slated for demolition, only this time London Stone will be treated with the respect due.

Planning permission has been granted for the demolition of the building and the erection of new premises on the site, to include a special raised plinth so that the artefact can be viewed by the public. During the building works, it is hoped that London Stone will be displayed in the Museum of London for about 20 months from late spring. [...]

While it is at the museum, research will be carried out in an attempt to define its geology, which may help to explain its origin and purpose. But the likelihood is it will remain, to paraphrase [author Iain] Sinclair, an object that everyone agrees is significant, even if no one quite knows why.

And perhaps that is the way it should be. According to [the Museum of London's John] Clark: “It is a mysterious and mystic object. I’m not sure if we want to know what it really was; in the end, that would spoil it.”

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