Monday, 9th December, 2013
Online in 3D: the ‘grotesque beauty’ of medieval Britons’ diseased bones
Digitised Diseases site makes 1,600 specimens available for doctors and members of the public to study for free
The bones of a young woman who died of syphilis more than 500 years ago, the reassembled jaw of a man whose corpse was sold to surgeons at the London hospital in the 19th century and the contorted bone of an 18th-century man who lived for many years after he was shot through the leg, are among the remains of hundreds of individuals which can now be studied in forensic detail on a new website.
The Digitised Diseases website, to be launched on Monday at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, brings together 1,600 specimens, many from people with excruciating conditions including leprosy and rickets, from stores scattered across various university and medical collections. The original crumbling bones of some specimens now available in 3D scans are too fragile to be handled. The database is intended for professionals, but is also available free to members of the public who may be fascinated by the macabre specimens.
“We believe this will be a unique resource both for archaeologists and medical historians to identify diseases in ancient specimens, but also for clinicians who can see extreme forms of chronic diseases which they would never see nowadays in their consulting rooms, left to progress unchecked before any medical treatment was available. These bones show conditions only available before either by travelling to see them, or in grainy black and white photographs in old textbooks,” said Andrew Wilson, senior lecturer in forensic and archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford and the lead researcher on the project. He added: “I do think members of the public will also find them gripping – they do have what one observer called ‘a grotesque beauty’.”
Some of the conditions were thought to have been almost eliminated but are now on the increase, including diseases of poverty such as tuberculosis and rickets.
“If the vivid evidence of these bones flags up the importance of taking these conditions very seriously and tackling them early, so much the better,” Wilson said.
Bradford University holds the remains of 4,000 men, women and children dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, including bones from the Battle of Towton, the bloodiest ever fought on English soil, in Yorkshire on Palm Sunday 1461. Those bones were consulted by the team which excavated the remains of Richard III in Leicester last year, as evidence of the terrible injuries inflicted on medieval battlefields.
Other specimens came from the cemetery of a 12th-century hospital in Chichester that treated leprosy, one of the most dreaded diseases of the middle ages. Bones also came from a cemetery in Gloucester, excavated in 1991, which as well as the Dominican friars whose churchyard it was, included hundreds of people buried between 1246 and 1539. These included the skull showing signs of advanced syphilis, including loss of bone around the nose, jaw and cranium, of a woman aged between 18 and 25.
Other bones came from a previously unknown burial ground at the London Hospital and excavated in 2006 by archaeologists from the Museum of London. They were the remains of the unfortunate poor who died in the hospital and were dissected by its surgeons. They died in greater number than the hospital’s own anatomy school could use: some were sold to other hospitals, and body snatchers targeted the burial ground. The Bradford team manage to reunite three fragments of the same jaw, found in a jumble of bones from many individuals tipped into the same grave, which showed clearly the straight cut marks of the anatomists: their 3D film of the reassembled jaw was seen in the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition at the Museum of London last year.
One long leg bone was evidently turned on a lathe – “for purposes we can only speculate on,” Wilson said.
He takes comfort from the fact that many of the individuals, including people who would have been bent double by spinal damage, or left too lame to walk or work, lived for many years with their conditions. “It’s important to remember that these are not just academic specimens, but the remains of real human beings – and in many cases it is clear that they were not just discarded as useless or shunned but accepted and cared for. This is by no means just a freak show.”
Monday, 25th November, 2013
A ‘CELTIC’ stone which is thought to be more than 1,200 years old has been unveiled in Barnstaple Museum.
The stone, which bears the inscription of the name ‘Guerngen’ [GUERNGENI - of Gwerngen] is one of only two* that have been discovered in the whole of North Devon.
Last year 15-year-old Jack Lawrence made the discovery in the wall of Shutes Cottage in West Down, where he lives with his parents.
He reported it to the North Devon Archaeological Society [pp. 3-4], and the stone was taken to the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon to be cleaned, drawn and studied.
Terry Green, who has researched the ancient find, said it was believed to be a memorial stone made from locally sourced sandstone.
“It is possible it could be a pillow stone which is placed at the head of a grave,” he said.
“It could have found its way from its original position to the churchyard, where it was built into the church in the 10th century.
“This was until the chancel was rebuilt in the 17th century and the tower in the early 18th century.
“These would have been two occasions where there would have been a lot of rubble available, and at some point this was built into the wall beside Shutes Cottage.”
Oliver Padel, of Cambridge University, said it was most probable the inscription dated back to the eight century, before the Anglo Saxons took over in Devon.
“This man who was commemorated must have been in the upper reaches of society for his family to afford such an expensive memorial,” said Mr Padel.
Jack, who was 13 when he discovered the inscription, said he hopes to pursue a career in archaeology or history.
He said: “I spotted some marks on the other side of the stone and they looked quite interesting we decided to turn it over – that’s when we found the inscription.
“The wall was knocked down before we moved in 12 years ago but it is amazing to think the stone has been sat in the pile of rubble all that time.”
The stone will remain in the museum until the spring, when it will be displayed in West Down Church.
*CARAACINEPUS, Winsford Hill [p. 2].
There is also a linear cross within a lozenge-shaped ring, scratched on one end of the stone. Four stones with this rare cross and lozenge pattern are known in Wales. One of them is at St. David’s Church in Llanllawer, the another is the re-discovered Silian 3 stone at St. Sulien’s Church, Ceredigion, mid-west Wales, and there is a cross on a shaft from St Tanwg’s Church, Llandanwg. A cross incised stone from St. Tecwyn’s Church, Llandecwyn, Gwynedd, is the closest match to the West Down stone, with one leg of the cross extending beyond the lozenge. The West Down stone is also comparable to the more local wheel-cross on the 7th- to 9th-century Culbone stone, Porlock.
Monday, 18th November, 2013
Experts say a shoe-wearing skeleton, found as part of an excavation on a church beneath Lincoln Castle dating back at least 1,000 years, should reveal much about the Saxon city ahead of radiocarbon dating on its hidden coffin
The bones of a holy figure, still wearing shoes and initially wrapped in a finely-woven textile, have been found buried within a wall beneath Lincoln Castle in a discovery pointing to the remains of a church dating to “at least” 1,000 years ago, according to experts.
Archaeologists believe the remains of several skeletons found during the dig at the castle, which was built by William the Conqueror more than 900 years ago, date to a stone church created between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the conquering Normans.
At least one of the remnants, found in a tiny space three metres below ground level, is a stone coffin, with the sacred bones found in a niche embedded in the foundations of an early stone wall on the opposite side of the site.
“Our knowledge of the site between the end of Roman period and when the castle was built is very scant,” admits Beryl Lott, the historic environment manager for Lincolnshire County Council, calling the excavation “very exciting”.
“While the discovery was totally unexpected, it is well known that other Roman walled towns often contained some form of high-status use during the Anglo-Saxon period.
“This will greatly increase our knowledge not just of the castle, but of uphill Lincoln as well. It’s a major find and we look forward to future developments.”
Tiny impressions of the cloth used to envelope the body were visible on the mortar of the wall, suggesting a “votive deposit” of the sort usually associated with holy dedications of buildings.
Archaeologists took a day to fully unearth the late Saxon sarcophagus the body rested in.
“The first step was to take a 3D scan of the coffin itself,” says Mary Powell, the programme manager for the Heritage Lottery Fund-backed Lincoln Castle Revealed project, which will eventually lead to a major public exhibition.
“Then we carefully opened it up to see what was inside. The body appeared to be wearing leather boots or shoes, which was usual for this period. This would suggest that it was someone of importance.
“Finding a sarcophagus from this period that’s still undisturbed is extremely rare, so this discovery is of national significance.
“The next step will be to thoroughly analyse both the sarcophagus and the remains to learn as much as we can from it. This will undoubtedly increase what we know about Saxon Lincoln.”
“The team has been carrying out DNA examinations of the skeletons and hope to create a digital reconstruction of what the man in the sarcophagus looked like.”
Tuesday, 29th October, 2013
Roman eagle rises again, after 4,000 years under London street
Sculpture probably adorned the tomb of an important figure
Archaeologists in London have discovered the finest Romano-British sculpture ever unearthed in the capital. The spectacular 65 centimetre tall sculpture of a Roman eagle with a snake in its beak was found at the bottom of an ancient Roman ditch just south of Aldgate station in the eastern part of the City – and will go on show at the Museum of London from Wednesday.
Originally, the eagle had almost certainly adorned either the interior or the roof of a grandiose tomb belonging to a prosperous and very important early Londoner who died in the late first or second century AD.
He must have been of substantial status and influence – because he had acquired a burial plot immediately by the side of one of the main roads leading out of London, some 50 metres outside the probable city boundary.
Indeed it is likely that the Roman city authorities gave him the honour of being buried on public land. That would suggest that he had been a senior political figure in Roman London – potentially one of the ‘joint mayors’ (the ‘magistrates’ who were appointed by the local city council to run the city’s finances, oversee religious matters and act as judges).
The ‘eagle and snake’ imagery is likely to have reflected the man’s powerful position in life. The eagle – a Roman symbol of power is seen in the sculpture fighting a snake, sometimes perceived in the Roman world as representing danger and the powers of the underworld.
The eagle’s presence on or in the tomb may have therefore also been seen as protecting the structure and the prominent Roman interred within it.
But it is the demise of that grandiose mausoleum-style tomb and the deposition of the eagle in a road-side ditch that may prove to be of greatest historical significance. For the archaeologists also found the foundations of the probable mausoleum – and it appears that the substantial six metre square structure had been deliberately demolished, but not to provide space for the construction of other buildings. Rather it appears to have been knocked down for some other reason.
The evidence so far suggests that it was probably demolished by the late second century AD – potentially around the time that the city authorities decided to construct a defensive wall around London. It’s conceivable that the mausoleum was deliberately knocked down at that time because it was too near the intended course of the city wall and might therefore have offered cover to potential enemies who might wish to attack the city.
It is also possible that the masonry from the mausoleum was used in the actual building of the wall when its construction began in the late second century.
Powerful protective figure the eagle might have been – but, not being a useful masonry block, it was therefore the wrong shape to help build the city wall and defend London. It’s therefore perhaps courtesy of its unsuitability for that more practical protective role that led to it being flung into a ditch, an act which preserved the sculpture for 2000 years.
The limestone sculpture itself was originally made either in the Cotswolds or in London by a member of a group of Romano-British sculptors associated with what is now the Gloucestershire area. In Britain, the only other similar known image of an eagle with a snake is a sculpture from a Roman villa [Keynsham*] in Somerset. However, elsewhere in the Roman Empire, the motif is relatively common and was inherited from an ancient Greek prototype.
The excavation team – from Museum of London Archaeology – found the eagle on the final day of an eight month long dig in the Minories near Aldgate. It’s one of the most important archaeological finds ever unearthed in London. The excavation – directed by archaeologist Simon Davis – was carried out in preparation for the construction of a hotel on the site.
Roman art specialist Professor Martin Henig of Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology said: “The sculpture is of exceptional quality, the finest sculpture by a Romano-British artist ever found in London and amongst the very best statues surviving from Roman Britain. It’s condition is extraordinary.”
*Henig, M. 2003. ‘The Keynsham Eagles’, in Bulletin of the Association of Archaeology 15 [p.6]
*Beeson, A. 2003. ‘The Keynsham Eagles: reply’, in Bulletin of the Association of Archaeology 15 [p.7]
*Beeson, A. 2003. ‘From Petra to Keynsham: A Romano-British Sculpture and its Iconographical Origins’, in Bulletin of the Association of Archaeology 14 [pp. 10-12 and p.13]
Saturday, 26th October, 2013
Friday, 25th October, 2013
Discovered castle treasure hopes to fill in history gap
Archaeologists who unearthed artefacts dating back to the 16th century say the discovery will help to understand Cardiff’s history.
The historic items including a tobacco pipe and sword sheath were found during the excavation of the Mill leat moat around Cardiff Castle.
“The Mill Leat has been a watercourse since at least the medieval period, and is thought to have powered a watermill located close to the west gate of the castle, however remarkably little is known about the history of this part of Cardiff in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
To find such a quantity of artefacts is remarkable, particularly given the range of materials recovered, and will shed significant light on life in Cardiff in the early modern period.”
– Dr Amelia Pannett of Archaeology Wales
Thursday, 10th October, 2013
An Anglo-Saxon girl’s box of trinkets is thought to have been uncovered by archaeologists during a three-week dig in Suffolk.
The excavation of a graveyard, dating from about AD650, has been completed at Barber’s Point on the River Alde.
Eight more skeletons have been found in graves alongside seven others which were uncovered during previous digs.
The box of ‘keepsakes’ included a bracelet, a brooch and a duck egg which is almost completely intact [and a spindle whorl].
The graveyard, near Aldeburgh, is believed to be one of the earliest examples of a Christian, rather than Pagan, burial site in East Anglia.
Other graves were found without skeletons, which are believed to have decayed in the acidic soil.
Jezz Meredith, from Suffolk County Council’s Archaeological Service, said: “The group of items found around the egg are likely to be keepsakes or mementos placed at the feet of this young adult female.
“[It's] very different from the sorts of things placed with the dead in the earlier Pagan period. “
“Before the Christian era, males were buried with weapons and females with their finery – so they were equipped and armed for the next world.”
The service has been working alongside the Aldeburgh & District Local History Society (ADLHS) using Heritage Lottery Fund money.
Tony Bone, chairman of ADLHS, said: “We’ve done four digs here from 2004-2010 and it’s great we’ve come to a conclusion.
“It’s exceeded our expectations and we look forward to the deliberations of the county team to tell us more about these finds.”
The dig also uncovered a dolphin ornament dating from Roman occupation of the site. [Also, some Samian ware and a Roman Coin of Emperor Domitian (AD 81 to AD 96)]
Tuesday, 1st October, 2013
The 21st century descendant of a medieval monk has come face to face with his ancestor thanks to researchers from Lancaster University.
The skull of a man buried at Norton Priory in Cheshire was used in the facial reconstruction by forensic artists Richard Neave and Denise Smith, responsible for the reconstructions in the recent BBC series, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The skeleton is believed to be that of William Dutton, a man born into the important Dutton family who were benefactors of the Priory at the time, and who himself took monastic orders and became a canon at the priory.
Living relative Peter Moore Dutton from Shropshire, who has traced his family back to the original patrons of the Priory, sees some family resemblances.
He said: “He has the typical Dutton nose!”
The research into the man, who was at least 46 when he died, also shed light on what may have been a more eventful life than might have been suspected for a holy man.
A William Dutton from this period was accused of a number of thefts, of cattle and also of horses, carts and axes.
According to Dr William Cook of Lancaster University, this same William also appeared in court in 1307 for “ takinge away Matilda, one of the daughters and heyres of Richard Stockport… whence they tooke her out of her chamber into the Courte, & there stript her of all her cloathes but her smocke…”.
Did this William, later in his life, regret his crimes and take holy orders? Or was it another William Dutton, a parson of Thornton church who lived a less colourful life?
Whoever he was, his skeleton tells us that he clearly suffered from Paget’s disease and Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis (DISH).
Research is continuing into William and the many other fascinating individuals who once lived here.
Two PhD graduates in Medieval History, Dr William Cook and Dr Michele Moatt are working with the Trust’s Senior Keeper, Lynn Smith, and Director, Frank Hargrave, to research the backgrounds of key individuals in Norton’s history whose skeletal remains have been excavated at the Priory.
Lynn Smith, Senior Keeper at Norton Priory said: ‘We’re delighted that Lancaster University thanks to funding from the AHRC, is bringing all of these secret histories back to life. To be able to look into the eyes of someone who saw the grandeur and beauty of the 14th century Abbey at Norton is something very special.”
The research and facial reconstruction will all feature in Norton Priory’s Arts Council England funded £100,000 project, which includes multi-media guides, projections, film and more facial reconstructions.
Wednesday, 25th September, 2013
A fragment from a flag which flew on Bosworth Field when Richard III was killed more than 500 years ago is set to sell for thousands of pounds at auction.
The red and gold piece of cloth, measuring 6.5 inches by 5.5 inches, is believed to be from Henry Tudor’s standard on the day of the bloody battle in 1485.
It is part of a flag once hung by the tomb of Henry’s standard bearer Sir Robert Harcourt [d.1490] and was eventually passed down through the Northamptonshire family now selling it.
Charles Hanson, manager of Hansons Auctioneers, said: “It is an incredible find from one of the most important battles ever fought on British soil.”
The estimate on the Battle of Bosworth* flag fragment has been set at between £3,000 and 5,000.
But with current interest in the battle fuelled by the discovery of Richard’s remains in a Leicester city centre car park, Mr Hanson believes it could make “considerably more”.
He said the material had been in the keeping of the same family since at least 1847, and had been mounted in a frame for safe-keeping.
“I am just delighted such a fundamental accessory to that 1485 battle has been unearthed only months after finding King Richard III in a Leicester car park,” he said. “As an auctioneer, I thrive on the social relevance such bygone artefacts had on society.
“If only this fragment could talk it could tell us so much.”
He added: “Of course we know now where Richard III was laid to rest and I hope this fragment find will be purchased by a museum or private collector who may place it on public display.”
* Henry Tudor’s standard bearer at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Sir William Brandon, was killed by Richard III.
Monday, 23rd September, 2013
There’s not a lot about this one yet, but there will be updates soon, hopefully.
Discovery of sacred Roman well amazes archaeology team
Buried a few feet under a garden in the centre of Havant, archaeologists stumbled upon a Roman well filled with coins and a bronze ring with a carving of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea.
Perhaps most intriguing was the discovery of eight dog skeletons at the bottom of the well.
Experts believe the dogs, which were worshipped in some ancient religions, may have been dropped down the ‘sacred well’ as a sacrifice to the gods.
The excavation was done at Homewell House, a Georgian property behind St Faith’s Church that is undergoing renovation.
Dr Andy Russel, from Southampton Archaeology Unit, told The News: ‘I would say it’s a pretty amazing find.
‘We have done a few sites in Havant before and found Roman bits and pieces but nothing on this scale of a beautifully constructed well with coins, a ring and this strange deposit of dogs in it.
‘I’ve never come across a deposit of dogs down a Roman pit or well before – it’s intriguing.’
The well, dated at between 250 and 280AD, is made of stone from the Isle of Wight.
Dr Russel added: ‘We have found post holes where people have put up buildings in the posts. There’s no sign of stone buildings. This is not a Fishbourne Roman Palace. Wooden buildings probably made up the settlement.’
The dogs showed wounds that had healed, indicating they may have been used for dog fighting.
Archaeologists believe the ring may have been dropped down the well by a Roman sailor, perhaps praying for safe passage home on the stormy seas.
More photos provided by Professor Konrad Morgan at the Friends of Havant Museum Facebook site.