Friday, June 23, 2017

Vikings Used Sherwood Forest Long Before It Was Known as the Hideout of Robin Hood


Ancient Origins


A team of archaeologists has made a significant discovery at an ancient monument which served as a Viking meeting point in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, England. Archaeologists stated that the newly found ruins mark the site of ‘Thing’ or Thynghowe of great archaeological significance not only nationally, but internationally as well.

 Vikings Used Ancient Monument Way Before Robin Hood Makes it Famous The new discovery suggests that long before legendary figure Robin Hood was hiding in Sherwood Forest, Vikings held their most important meetings there. The site, known as a Thynghowe, is at the top of Hanger Hill, on the boundary of the Budby, Warsop and Edwinstowe parishes, and on the edge of Birklands wood. 

The Thynghowe was discovered by local residents Stuart Reddish and Lynda Mallett in 2004, who have since founded the community action group The Friends of Thynghowe. Over a decade later, Mercian’s Geophysical Magnetometer Survey findings are putting a spotlight on their discovery, opening a window for new study and further examination of the Viking influence in Sherwood. “It was the group, their drive and passion, who have helped to find and protect this site,” archaeologist Andy Gaunt of Mercian Archaeological Services told Observer.

Consequently Gaunt explains how these meetings worked, “It’s where they [Vikings] signed laws, settled disputes and all sorts of things like that. The ‘thing site’ is definitely where they’d meet and where they would hold assemblies. And, if we’re correct, they would’ve stood within the circle and discussed laws and the question of the day, and then they’d pronounce the verdict from the top of the hill from the ‘thing mound’. That’s how it might have worked,” he says according to a report from local news site Notts TV.


A scan of the Viking meeting point in Sherwood Forest. Credit: Mercian Archaeological Services CIC

The Ancient Parliamentary Plains of Iceland
 Only a handful of ‘Thing sites’ have been found all over the Viking world: in Dublin, the Isle of Man and the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands and Iceland – arguably the most famous Viking Thing Site.

 Also known as the country’s first parliament, the Althingi (literally meaning the all thing, or general assembly), is over a thousand years old. As reported in a previous Ancient Origins article, the Althingi was founded in 930 AD and was originally used for the general assembly of the Icelandic Commonwealth.


Þingvellir National Park, iceland . Photo source: UNESCO.

These assemblies were conducted at Þingvellir (the ‘assembly fields’ or ‘Parliament Plains’), which is in the south western part of the island. The gatherings typically lasted for two weeks in June, which was a period of uninterrupted daylight, and had the mildest weather. During these meetings, the country’s most powerful leaders would decide on legislation and dispense justice. At the center of the assembly was the Lögberg, or Law Rock. This was a rocky outcrop which the Lawspeaker, the presiding official of the assembly, took his seat. This Lawspeaker was an important national official, and was elected for a three-year term as the chairman of the lögrétta (legislative or law council). Among other duties, the Lawspeaker had to announce publicly the laws that were passed by the lögrétta.


The Law Rock, where the world’s first every Parliament congregated. Image source

 Despite the prestige that went along with this position, the Lawspeaker had, in reality, little or no official power. Thus, the Lawspeaker may be comparable to the Speakers of modern day parliaments. Serious matters of government were not the only items on the agenda. The general assembly was in fact also the main social event of the year. Hundreds of Icelanders of all professions, including farmers, traders and craftsmen, would converge on the Axe River which ran through the Þingvellir. During the two weeks that the general assembly was in session, friendships were formed and broken, news and information were passed on from one person to another, disputes were settled, and business would have been transacted. The gathering would almost certainly have had a festival-like atmosphere to it.




Vikings marching to Althing, the world's oldest parliament established in Thingvellir in AD 930. Image by Marja.

The Viking Meeting Point in Sherwood Forest is Unique
An excited Gaunt, however, argues that the Viking meeting point in Sherwood Forest is different than the rest in its own way, “The level of preservation makes it a pristine. There’s not really an equivalent. We can stand on that hill and know we’re standing where Vikings stood. There are not many places in the U.K. where you can say that,” he told Observer. And adds: “Its hugely important archaeological remains could have been lost forever and have remained unknown and unrecorded.”

Ultimately, Gaunt clarified that the next step for the Mercian and the Friends of Thynghowe team is to wait patiently for the results of further scientific examination of the finds from local universities, and then to conduct a wide study where more experts can participate, while everyone who’s fascinated by Viking history will get a chance to learn more about Viking legacy in Sherwood. “This is the Viking part of the story of Sherwood Forest,” he told Observer adding that between the Saxons and Medieval period, Thynghowe provides “another layer of that magical story.”

Top image: Reconstruction of a Viking meeting by jonathan_hart

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Thursday, June 22, 2017

1,500-Year-Old Mound in England Found to be Elite Anglo Saxon Burial


Ancient Origins


Students at the historic British boys’ boarding school Eton College may have been using an ancient grave as a community gathering place for centuries, not realizing that the 20-foot mound near the school is really a Saxon burial monument built 1,500 years ago, possibly holding the body of an important historical figure.


Eton Montem as depicted in The English Spy, published 1825. (public domain)

 New Finds Will Extend Knowledge of the History of Slough
The University of Reading official website reports that the circular mound in Slough, England, which is more than 100 feet (30 meters) across, was built about 1,500 years ago, during the same period of time other well-known burial mounds were created in order to “accommodate” local leaders and people of high social status. According to the archaeologists of the prestigious University, the Montem Mound in the Berkshire town, now surrounded by Municipal buildings and car parks, is no exception to that rule and most likely served as the resting place of a significant person and could also contain artifacts of significant value.

 The discovery of the “Sutton Hoo of Slough” is considered to be of great archaeological value since it is only one of the very few mounds from this period. Additionally, the newly found mound opposes the previous dominant theory that suggested that the specific structure was a Norman Conquest-era “motte and bailey” castle.

Dr. Jim Leary, the University of Reading archaeologist who led the exploration back in December 2016, stated as Phys Org reports: "Conventional wisdom placed the Montem Mound 500 years later, in the Norman period. But we have shown that it dates to between the 5th and 7th centuries, not long after the collapse of Roman Empire. This is a time of heroic myth and legend where archaeology fills the gaps of the historic record. This discovery will add so much more to our understanding of the people who lived in Britain at this time. It will also extend our knowledge of the history of Slough."

Unique Technique Used for the First Time
The mound is already a statutory Scheduled Ancient Monument which protects it from development. As Phys Org mentions, the discovery took place during a Leverhulme Trust-funded project called the “Round Mounds Project”. With the use of a novel technique which drills into and dates mottes in England for the first time, researchers get a unique chance to learn more about the age of the monuments. The specific technique allows important information to be collected while it doesn’t severely harm the precious archaeological sites.

King George III and Queen Charlotte at the “Montem”, 1778 (ink wash on paper), by Samuel H. Grimm via the British Library online gallery 

Working alongside colleagues at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre at East Kilbride, the team from Reading has demonstrated that, despite the majority of the mounds examined so far being constructed in the period immediately after the Norman Conquest in 1066, there are some extraordinary exceptions.

Dr. Jim Leary said as Phys Org reports, “We tested material from all through the mound, so we are confident that it dates to the Saxon period. Given the dates of the mound, its size and dimensions, and the proximity to the known richly-furnished Saxon barrow at Taplow, it seems most likely that Montem Mound is a prestigious Saxon burial mound."


Montem Mound, Bath Road, Slough. December 1997 (Slough History Online)

 The archaeological investigations at the site were agreed with Historic England, and consent was granted by the Secretary of State. It is managed as a historical feature as part of Slough Borough Council's parks and open spaces services. The Council is already preparing an enhancement scheme with an interpretation board so that everyone can understand the importance and history of this special green mound.

Top image: Main: Anglo Saxon Portraits (BBC) Inset: Montem Mound (CC by SA 3.0)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Summer Solstice - June 21, 2017




The longest day of the year! The summer solstice occurs when the tilt of a planet's semi-axis, in either the northern or the southern hemisphere, is most inclined toward the star that it orbits.




Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sam’s historical recipe corner: Anzac biscuits

History Extra


Tasty, nutritious and easy to make, it’s not surprising that Anzac biscuits are still a popular snack in Australia and New Zealand, particularly on Anzac Day (25 April), which marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.

 Ingredients
85g porridge oats
 85g desiccated coconut
 100g plain flour
 100g caster sugar
 100g butter, plus extra for greasing
 1 tbsp golden syrup
 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

 Method
Heat oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Put the oats, coconut, flour and sugar in a bowl. Melt the butter in a small pan and stir in the golden syrup. Add the bicarbonate of soda to 2 tbsp boiling water, then stir into the golden syrup and butter mixture.

 Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the butter and golden syrup mixture. Stir gently to incorporate the dry ingredients.

 Put dessertspoonfuls of the mixture on to buttered baking sheets – about 2.5cm/1in apart to allow room for spreading. Bake in batches for 8-10 mins until golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

 My verdict
I’ve often read that Anzac biscuits were sent out to New Zealand and Australian troops serving in Gallipoli during the First World War. According to the National Army Museum, though, this is a myth and most of these deliciously chewy biscuits were in fact sold at fetes and galas at home, often as part of fundraising efforts. You can imagine, though, that they would have been an ideal biscuit for soldiers: hearty, nutritious and long-lasting.

 On a Monday morning, the BBC History Magazine team tucked into a few that had been left in the office all weekend: they still tasted just as good!

 Difficulty: 2/10
 Time: 20 minutes

 Recipe courtesy of BBC Good Food.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Seductive Sirens of Greek Mythology: How the Heroes Resisted Temptation


Ancient Origins


Sirens (sometimes spelled as ‘seirenes’) are a type of creature found in ancient Greek mythology. Sirens are commonly described as beautiful but dangerous creatures. In Greek mythology, sirens are known for seducing sailors with their sweet voices, and, by doing so, lure them to their deaths. The sirens have been mentioned by numerous ancient Greek authors. Arguably one of the most famous references regarding the sirens comes from Homer’s Odyssey, in which the hero, Odysseus, encounters these creatures during his voyage home from Troy.

Terracotta two handed vase or Kylix, decorated with black Sirens (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sirens in Ancient Literature The number of sirens varies according to the ancient authors. Homer, for example, mentions neither the number nor names of the sirens that Odysseus and his companions encountered. Other writers, however, are more descriptive. For instance, some state that there were two sirens (Aglaopheme and Thelxiepeia), whilst others claim that there were three of them (Peisinoë, Aglaope and Thelxiepeia or Parthenope, Ligeia and Leucosia).


Ulysses and the Sirens, 1868, Firmin Girard (Public Domain)

The authors were also not in agreement with each other regarding the parentage of the sirens. One author, for instance, claimed that the sirens were the daughters of Phorcys (a primordial sea god), whilst another stated that they were the children of Terpsichore (one of the nine Muses). According to one tradition, the sirens were the companions or handmaidens of Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. After Persephone’s abduction by Hades, the sirens were given wings. According to some authors, this was requested by the sirens themselves, so that they may be more effective at searching for their mistress. Others attribute these wings as a punishment from Demeter, as the sirens had failed to prevent the abduction of Persephone.


An Archaic perfume vase in the shape of a siren, circa 540 BC (Public Domain)

In any event, this association with the myth of Persephone’s abduction has contributed to the depiction of the sirens by the ancient Greeks. In general, these creatures are depicted as birds with the heads of women. In some instances, the sirens are depicted with arms. According to researchers, the sirens (or at least the way they are portrayed) are of Eastern origin (the ancient Egyptian ba, for example, is often depicted as a bird with a human head), and entered Greece during the orientalising period of Greek art.

 Resisting the Sirens’ Seductive Song
The sirens appear in many ancient Greek myths. One of the most famous of stories about the sirens can be found in Homer’s Odyssey. In this piece of literature, the sirens are said to live on an island near Scylla and Charybdis, and the hero Odysseus was warned about them by Circe. In order to stop his men from being seduced by the sirens’ singing, Odysseus had his men block their ears with wax. As the hero wanted to hear the sirens singing, he ordered his men to tie him tightly to the mast of the ship. As Odysseus and his men sailed past the island which the sirens inhabited, the men were unaffected by their song, as they could not hear it. As for Odysseus, he heard the sirens sing, but lived to tell the tale, being bound to the mast.


Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891, John William Waterhouse. Ulysses (Odysseus) is tied to the mast and the crew have their ears covered to protect them from the sirens (Public Domain)

Another myth that features the sirens is that of Jason and the Argonauts. Like Odysseus, Jason and his men also had to sail past the siren’s island. Fortunately for the Argonauts, they had Orpheus, the legendary musician, with them. As the sirens began to sing their song, in the hopes of seducing the Argonauts, Orpheus played a tune on his lyre. The music overpowered the voices of the sirens, and the Argonauts were able to sail safely past the island. Only one Argonaut, Butes, was enchanted, and he jumped out of the ship in order to swim to them. Fortunately for him, he was saved by Aphrodite, who took him from the sea, and placed him in Lilybaeum.

 Top image: Ulysses (Odysseus) and the Sirens, circa, 1909 by Herbert James Draper. (Public Domain)

 By Wu Mingren

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Pegasus: The Majestic White Horse of Olympus

Ancient Origins


Pegasus is the majestic flying horse found in Greek mythology. This creature is traditionally depicted as a pure white horse with wings. The father of Pegasus is said to be the god of the sea, Poseidon, whilst its mother was the Gorgon Medusa. Pegasus is best known for its association with the heroes Perseus and Bellerophon. In the story of Perseus’ slaying of Medusa, one can find the narration of Pegasus’ birth. This winged horse later became the mount of Bellerophon, and can be found in the stories about this hero’s exploits, including the slaying of the chimera, and his flight to Mount Olympus.

 Hesiod's Theogony
In Hesiod's Theogony, it is written that “with her [Medusa] the god of the Sable Locks [Poseidon] lay in a soft meadow among the spring flowers”. The union between Medusa and Poseidon resulted in Pegasus and Chrysaor, who were born when Medusa was decapitated by the hero Perseus,

 “And when Perseus cut off her head from her neck, out sprang great Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus. He was so named because he was born beside the waters of Oceanus, while the other was born with a golden sword in his hands.”


Perseus with the head of Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini (1554) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hesiod also mentions that after Pegasus was born, the horse flew off to Mount Olympus, where it came to live in Zeus’ palace. There, Pegasus was given the job of carrying the god’s thunder and lightning. Alternatively, the stories in Greek mythology suggest that Pegasus spent some time on earth before flying to Mount Olympus. During this time, Pegasus served two heroes – Perseus and Bellerophon.

 Following the death of Medusa, Perseus is said to have been travelling home when he caught sight of a maiden chained to a rock. This was Andromeda, the daughter of the King and Queen of Ethiopia. Andromeda’s mother had angered Poseidon by boasting that her daughter was more beautiful than even the Nereids. The god then punished the people of Ethiopia by first sending a flood, and then a sea monster to terrorize them. The only way to appease Poseidon was to sacrifice Andromeda, which was the reason for her being chained to a rock.


Pegasus emerges from the body of Medusa. ‘The Perseus Series: The Death of Medusa I’ by Edward Burne-Jones (Public Domain)

Perseus offered to rescue the princess, and deal with the monster, provided that he be given Andromeda’s hand in marriage. The king agreed to this, and when the monster came to claim the princess, it was turned to stone by Perseus with the severed head of Medusa. The connection between Pegasus and Andromeda may be seen in the sky, where their constellations can be found side by side.



Perseus saving Andromeda, 1596, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. (Public Domain)

Bellerophon and Pegasus
Pegasus was also the mount of Bellerophon, who came to possess the flying horse during his quest against the chimera. According to one story, the hero had visited the city of Tiryns, where Proetus was king. The queen, Stheneboea, is said to have fallen in love with Bellerophon, though the hero rejected her advances. Feeling humiliated, Stheneboea went to her husband, and accused the hero of trying to seduce her. The enraged Proetus sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law, Iobates, the King of Lycia, with a letter. In the letter, the king was asked to kill the messenger.

 Instead of putting Bellerophon to death, however, Iobates decided to dispatch the hero on a quest to kill the chimera, believing that he would not survive the encounter. To prepare for this quest, Bellerophon is said to have consulted the Corinthian seer, Polyeidos, who advised him to seek out Pegasus. In one version of the myth, Polyeidos knew where Pegasus alighted to drink, and shared the information with Bellerophon, thus allowing him to tame it. In another version, it was Poseidon (Bellerophon’s secret father) who brought Pegasus to him. The most popular version of the story, however, is that it was Athena who brought Pegasus to Bellerophon. With the help of Pegasus, Bellerophon succeeded in slaying the chimera.


Bellerophon on Pegasus spears the Chimera, on an Attic red-figure epinetron, 425–420 BC. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Over time, Bellerophon’s pride grew, and he aspired to scale the heights of Mount Olympus on the back of Pegasus to take his place amongst the immortals. Zeus was aware of the hero’s ambition, and sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus. Bellerophon lost his balance, and fell back to earth. Pegasus, however, continued the journey to Mount Olympus, and went on to live in Zeus’ palace, and was given the task of carrying the god’s thunder and lightning.


Bellerophon riding Pegasus (1914) (Public Domain)

Top image: Pegasus. (kingofwallpapers.com)

By Wu Mingren

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Archaeologists Stumble Upon 10 Egyptian Late Period Rock-Hewn Tombs

Ancient Origins


An Egyptian mission from the Ministry of Antiquities recently came across 10 previously undiscovered rock-hewn tombs on the West Bank of Aswan. They say the tombs date to the Late Period (664‒332 BC) and contain sarcophagi, mummies, and funerary collections.

The team was working at the nearby Agha Kahn mausoleum when they found the tombs. Nasr Salama, director-general of Aswan and Nubia Antiquities, told Ahram Online the tombs are architecturally similar. All feature sliding steps leading to an entrance, followed by a small burial chamber. Inside those chambers the researchers have found stone sarcophagi and mummies, as well as artifacts such as a gilded coffin, painted mummy mask, clay pot, and canopic jars.


A painted mummy mask found as part of one of the funerary collections. ( Ahram Online )

Funerary goods were very important elements of ancient Egyptian burials. As Ancient Origins writer Dhwty explained in an article on enigmatic funerary cones :

 “Ancient Egyptians were extremely concerned about the afterlife, and they did all they could to provide for the dead. Funerary goods were buried with the dead to provide protection and sustenance in the afterlife. Amulets and magic spells, for example, protected and aided the dead in their journey through the Underworld, whilst little figurines called shabtis could be magically animated to perform tasks for the dead in the afterlife. Other common items buried with the dead include jewelry, pottery, furniture and food.”



A canopic jar found in one of the Aswan tombs. ( Ministry of Antiquities )

An initial study of the tombs suggests that they are likely an extension of the Aswan necropolis containing overseers from the Old, Middle, and New kingdom. The team will return to excavations and conservation work on the tombs in September. They hope to learn more about the deceased at that time.

 In June 2015, Mark Miller reported for Ancient Origins that six other ancient Egyptian tombs belonging to elite members of the 26th dynasty of the Late Pharaonic Period were found in the necropolis near Agha Khan’s mausoleum. Before that, only tombs from the early and middle dynasties had been excavated in that part of Aswan.

Those tombs were looted in the unrest of 2011, but a number of stunning artifacts were still found including some sarcophagi with mummies intact, statues of the falcon-headed god Horus and his four sons, and amulets of different colors, shapes and sizes.


Statues found in the 26th dynasty Aswan tombs in 2015. (Ministry of Antiquities/ Egitalloyd Travel Egypt ) 

The 26th dynasty has been called both a Renaissance, after Assyrian conquerors left and Egyptian governors declared themselves kings, and as the last gasp of a once great culture. As Mark Miller wrote: 

“Historians say the prosperity of the time is evident in the many temples built then and the precise care taken to reproduce ancient artworks and literary texts. Also, archaeologists have found that the number of contracts written on papyrus from this era was increasing.”


The Brooklyn Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical papyrus dating from about 450 BC. ( Brooklyn Museum )

Top Image: Part of a gilded coffin which was found in one of the Aswan tombs. Source: Ministry of Antiquities

By Alicia McDermott

Friday, June 16, 2017

Celtic Prince or Princess? Researchers Have Finally Ascertained Who Owned an Opulent 2500-Year-Old Tomb in France

Ancient Origins


First unearthed in 2015, research on the stunning artifacts found in a rich tomb in Lavau, France are finally coming to light. Scholars have managed to solve the mystery of the tomb’s owner and have provided some other exciting pieces of information on the rich grave goods.

The 2,500-year-old human remains were first discovered in 2015 when archaeologists were exploring a site in preparation for construction of a new commercial center. The tumulus (burial mound) was surrounded by a ditch and palisade. The tomb was said to be larger than the cathedral of nearby Troyes.

 The body found in this huge burial mound was accompanied by a chariot, a vase depicting Dionysus, and a beautiful Mediterranean bronze cauldron adorned with castings of the Greek god Achelous and lions’ heads. These elaborate artifacts, along with a stunning gold necklace, bracelets, and finely worked amber beads adorning the skeleton, asserted the person's elite status.


Artifacts in the Celtic elite’s tomb in 2015. ( Denis Gliksman, Inrap )

The French archaeological agency INRAP said the treasures of the tomb are “fitting for one of the highest elite of the end of the first Iron Age,” and told the media it is one of the most remarkable finds of the Celtic Hallstatt period of 800 to 450 BC.

 Initially, the archaeologists were uncertain to whom the tomb pertained, first stating that a large knife found alongside the remains suggested it was made for a man, however, the rich golden jewelry opened the possibility that a Celtic princess may have been buried instead.

Now, IB Times reports the recent analysis of the shape of the pelvic bones has solved that mystery – it is today known as the ‘Lavau prince’s’ tomb.


The recent analysis of the shape of the pelvic bones has solved the mystery of the tomb’s owner – it was a Celtic ‘prince.’ (Denis Gliksman, Inrap )

 Furthermore, the recent INRAP analysis of the bronze cauldron has shown researchers that its creator(s) had mastered smelting and engraving techniques. By using X-ray radiography, the researchers have found that the prince’s belt is unique and has Celtic motifs formed with silver threads. An examination of a knife sheath showed fine bronze threads. The researchers also saw that a gold torc and several gold bangles have marks where they rubbed against the prince’s skin.

Finally, chemical analysis and 3-D photography show that a large jar that was used to pour wine combines Greek-style ceramic with golden Etruscan and silver Celtic designs. This is an important discovery for the researchers as it provides more evidence of a mix of cultural influences and supports the presence of economic and social interaction present amongst Celtic and Mediterranean people in the 5th century BC. As INRAP previously explained :

"The tomb contains mortuary deposits of sumptuousness worth that of the top Hallstatt elites. The period between the late 6th Century and the beginning of the 5th Century BC was characterized by the economic development of Greek and Etruscan city-states in the West, in particularly Marseilles. Mediterranean traders come into contact with the continental Celtic communities as they searched for slaves, metals and precious goods (including amber)."


Artifacts from the Celtic Lavau Prince’s tomb. ( Denis Gliksman, Inrap )

 The prince’s grave is considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries in France in recent decades and it has been compared to the 1953 unearthing of a grave for the 'Lady of Vix'.

INRAP reports that research concerning the prince’s tomb will continue until 2019, with hopes that more information will come to light.

Top Image: This bronze cauldron is one of the stunning artifacts which have been analyzed from the tomb of a Celtic elite found in Lavau, France. Source: Denis Gliksman, Inrap

 By Alicia McDermott

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Burning off the Crust: New Laser Treatment Used to Clean Frescoes in Rome’s Largest 1600-year-old Catacomb Complex


Ancient Origins


Formerly blacked-out frescoes and ancient graffiti in some of Italy’s largest catacombs have been revealed using laser and scanner technology. Restorers, employed by the Vatican, have unveiled frescoes from the time of ancient Rome, depicting some of the most famous Bible stories alongside pagan images - all representing the life to come.

 The Catacombs of St. Domitilla house about 150,000 tombs in an underground maze in Rome. The paintings have been covered in grime, dust and smoke since the Roman Empire still ruled much of the world. The remarkable restoration has been carried out by the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology.

17th Century Discovery
The project has revealed paintings that had been covered for centuries, and also graffiti of the Maltese lawyer, Antonio Bosio, who rediscovered them in the 17th century. Antonio Bosio thought all the tombs were of martyrs, but they only included the tombs of the martyrs Nereus and Achilleus. Bosio wrote his name on some of the paintings in charcoal.

 Bosio was called the Christopher Columbus of the Catacombs, says a story about the underground networks on CatholicPhilly.com.

CatholicPhilly.com’s article says of the frescoes:
Pagan symbolism, such as depictions of the four seasons or a peacock representing the afterlife, together with biblical scenes are integrated without contradiction, [Barbara] Mazzei said. The unifying motif is salvation and the deliverance from death as is underlined by the varied depictions of Noah in his ark welcoming back the dove, Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac, Jonah and the whale, and the multiplication of the fishes and loaves, she said.



The whale spits out Jonah in a fresco unveiled this week in the huge Roman Christian Catacombs of St. Domitilla. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

Lifting The Black Veil
Ms. Mazzei is the director of renovation project. She said the catacombs have 70 burial chambers, called cubicula, but her team restored just 10 of them. She told The Telegraph:

 ‘When we started work, you couldn’t see anything – it was totally black. Different wavelengths and chromatic selection enabled us to burn away the black disfiguration without touching the colors beneath. Until recently, we weren’t able to carry out this sort of restoration – if we had done it manually we would have risked destroying the frescoes.’



A tunnel showing some of the crypts built into the walls of the Catacombs of St. Domitilla (Dennis Jarvis/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The modern technology used to restore the catacomb’s paintings is better than using conventional methods because they could have been damaged in the process and taken years. The team intends to restore more of the crypts in the underground warrens.

These are Rome’s oldest underground burial sites and were in use from the 2nd century AD until the 9th century. Then they were abandoned. The remains of the 150,000 people are buried in 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) of tunnels or rooms on four levels. The renovations were in the larger rooms, the burial sites for the rich and elite, says an article about the project on IFL Science.

Decorated for Bakers
This renovation work was carried out on the tombs of some of the city’s ancient bakers, says CatholicPhilly. They got rich with a state-supported trade of wheat and bread-baking that benefited people because Rome gave everyone a daily ration.

Bernardino Bertocci attended the unveiling this week to signify that bakers were and still are a vital part of Roman life. Bread, of course, is one of the most important Christian symbols as Jesus broke bread with his disciples during the Last Supper the night before he was beaten, scourged and crucified.

Top image: In this fresco, Jesus is shown seated on a throne with his disciples at hand. The painting is in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome, which have been newly restored. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

By Mark Miller

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The First Genome Data from Ancient Egyptian Mummies: Ancient Egyptians Were Most Closely Related to Ancient Populations from the Near East

Ancient Origins


An international team of scientists, led by researchers from the University of Tuebingen and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, successfully recovered and analyzed ancient DNA from Egyptian mummies dating from approximately 1400 BCE to 400 CE, including the first genome-wide nuclear data from three individuals, establishing ancient Egyptian mummies as a reliable source for genetic material to study the ancient past. The study, published on Tuesday in Nature Communications, found that modern Egyptians share more ancestry with Sub-Saharan Africans than ancient Egyptians did, whereas ancient Egyptians were found to be most closely related to ancient people from the Near East.


Verena Schuenemann at the Palaeogenetics Laboratory, University of Tuebingen. Credit: Johannes Krause

 Methodological Obstacles with Egyptian aDNA
Egypt is a promising location for the study of ancient populations. It has a rich and well-documented history, and its geographic location and many interactions with populations from surrounding areas, in Africa, Asia and Europe, make it a dynamic region. Recent advances in the study of ancient DNA present an intriguing opportunity to test existing understandings of Egyptian history using ancient genetic data.

However, genetic studies of ancient Egyptian mummies are rare due to methodological and contamination issues. Although some of the first extractions of ancient DNA were from mummified remains, scientists have raised doubts as to whether genetic data, especially nuclear genome data, from mummies would be reliable, even if it could be recovered. "The potential preservation of DNA has to be regarded with skepticism," confirms Johannes Krause, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena and senior author of the study. "The hot Egyptian climate, the high humidity levels in many tombs and some of the chemicals used in mummification techniques, contribute to DNA degradation and are thought to make the long-term survival of DNA in Egyptian mummies unlikely." The ability of the authors of this study to extract nuclear DNA from such mummies and to show its reliability using robust authentication methods is a breakthrough that opens the door to further direct study of mummified remains.



Mummified hand (circa 1000 BC) used as a source of ancient DNA (YouTube Screenshot)

The Research
For this study, an international team of researchers from the University of Tuebingen, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, the University of Cambridge, the Polish Academy of Sciences, and the Berlin Society of Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory, looked at genetic differentiation and population continuity over a 1,300-year timespan, and compared these results to modern populations. The team sampled 151 mummified individuals from the archaeological site of Abusir el-Meleq, along the Nile River in Middle Egypt, from two anthropological collections hosted and curated at the University of Tuebingen and the Felix von Luschan Skull Collection at the Museum of Prehistory of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Stiftung Preussicher Kulturbesitz.

In total, the authors recovered mitochondrial genomes from 90 individuals, and genome-wide datasets from three individuals. They were able to use the data gathered to test previous hypotheses drawn from archaeological and historical data, and from studies of modern DNA. "In particular, we were interested in looking at changes and continuities in the genetic makeup of the ancient inhabitants of Abusir el-Meleq," said Alexander Peltzer, one of the lead authors of the study from the University of Tuebingen. The team wanted to determine if the investigated ancient populations were affected at the genetic level by foreign conquest and domination during the time period under study, and compared these populations to modern Egyptian comparative populations. "We wanted to test if the conquest of Alexander the Great and other foreign powers has left a genetic imprint on the ancient Egyptian population," explains Verena Schuenemann, group leader at the University of Tuebingen and one of the lead authors of this study



Egyptian Mummy in Laboratory (Bigstock)

Close genetic relationship between ancient Egyptians and ancient populations in the Near East The study found that ancient Egyptians were most closely related to ancient populations in the Levant, and were also closely related to Neolithic populations from the Anatolian Peninsula and Europe. "The genetics of the Abusir el-Meleq community did not undergo any major shifts during the 1,300-year timespan we studied, suggesting that the population remained genetically relatively unaffected by foreign conquest and rule," says Wolfgang Haak, group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. The data shows that modern Egyptians share approximately 8% more ancestry on the nuclear level with Sub-Saharan African populations than with ancient Egyptians. "This suggests that an increase in Sub-Saharan African gene flow into Egypt occurred within the last 1,500 years," explains Stephan Schiffels, group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. Possible causal factors may have been improved mobility down the Nile River, increased long-distance trade between Sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt, and the trans-Saharan slave trade that began approximately 1,300 years ago.

This study counters prior skepticism about the possibility of recovering reliable ancient DNA from Egyptian mummies. Despite the potential issues of degradation and contamination caused by climate and mummification methods, the authors were able to use high-throughput DNA sequencing and robust authentication methods to ensure the ancient origin and reliability of the data. The study thus shows that Egyptian mummies can be a reliable source of ancient DNA, and can greatly contribute to a more accurate and refined understanding of Egypt's population history.

Top Image: Egyptian sarcophagus containing mummified remains The article ‘ The first genome data from ancient Egyptian mummies: Ancient Egyptians were most closely related to ancient populations from the Near East’ was originally published on Science Daily .

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How to throw a medieval feast

History Extra


An elaborate banquet depicted in a 14th-century illuminated manuscript of Froissart's Chronicles. (Getty Images)

 Imagine that you are a master chef, working for a celebrity who wants to throw a wedding dinner for their daughter, with 200–300 guests. Next imagine that you have no electricity – no refrigerators, no freezers, no light – and no gas. Your suppliers have to get everything to you fresh, and you don’t want to use salted meat for this important occasion. You are not sure exactly how much of any ingredient you will need until very close to the day. What’s more, the guests may stay on for several days. Among them there will be vegetarians or people needing special diets. To top this all off, the only transport available is horse and cart, so nothing can be brought at the last minute.

Sounds difficult? Working recently on a book on the feasts and festivals of the Middle Ages, I encountered an extraordinary handbook which described exactly how to deal with this situation. Fortunately for us, in 1420, Amadeus VIII, count of Savoy (on the borders of France and Italy) asked his cook - a Master Chiquart - to record his experiences. The house of Savoy had had a reputation for magnificence and stylish living since the mid-14th century, and Chiquart had been employed by Amadeus VIII since the late 1390s. Yet initially, Chiquart was reluctant to set pen to paper and refused to do so. He was a cook, not a learned man who wrote books and nothing like it had ever been done before. However, the duke persisted. Eventually, Chiquart set down what he had learnt in the course of his service, stylishly and with eloquence, in Du fait de cuisine.

 Medieval recipe books
 By the time Chiquart became the count of Savoy’s master chef, there was a common stock of recipes circulated in manuscript cookery books, and by word of mouth, which were found in princely courts throughout western Europe. What is striking is that we are nonetheless in the presence of a creative chef; Chiquart goes far beyond this basic repertoire. He either elaborates on the standard recipes, or provides new ones that have no parallel elsewhere.

 Furthermore, unlike many earlier recipe books that were vague about how to actually cook a particular dish, Chiquart gives the kind of instructions that we find in a modern cookery book. The only difference between his recipes and today’s cookbooks is that Chiquart does not suggest quantities, possibly because they would have varied so hugely between the count’s private dinners and his greatest feasts. Chiquart is instructing his readers in what he has learnt of his art, part of which is to know the amounts to use. One recipe specifies that the cook should put in “just the right amount, so that there is neither too little nor too much”, implying that knowledge only comes with experience, and cannot be written down.

 Preparing for a “most honourable feast”
 Unlike any earlier writer, Chiquart begins his treatise on cookery with notes on how to organise a “most honourable feast”. These notes at once open a window on the mundane matters on which the success or failure of such an event depended. Cattle, sheep and pigs were to be bought from the butcher, “and for this the butcher will be wise if he is well supplied, so that if it happens that the feast lasts longer than expected, one has promptly what is necessary; and also, if there are extras, do not butcher them so that nothing is wasted.” In other words, the butcher would buy in animals and keep them in his fields until he needed them.


Butchery depicted in a 14th-century handbook of health. (Getty Images)

 The quantities were massive: for each day of the feast Chiquart recommended 200 kids and lambs, 100 calves and 2,000 poultry birds; for a major feast lasting a full week, these figures would be multiplied by five, and fish would also be needed for two fast days (Friday and Saturday).

 While these numbers may sound huge, comparing Chiquart’s figures against those from English royal feasts in the 13th and 14th centuries shows that they are indeed realistic. At Christmas 1251, Henry III and his guests were served 830 red, fallow and roe deer, 200 wild boar, 1,300 hares, 385 young pigeons (squabs) and 115 cranes; and that was merely the wild game. For the knighting of Edward II in 1306, the cattle required numbered 400 oxen, 800 sheep, 400 pigs and 40 boars.

 Preparations had to start early. Chiquart suggests that “subtle, diligent and wise” poulterers should have 40 horsemen at their disposal to get game, river birds, and wild birds, and “whatever they can get”. “They should turn their attention to this two months or six weeks before the feast,” he says, “and they should all have come or sent what they could obtain by three or four days before the said feast so that the said meat can be hung and each dealt with as it ought to be.” The birds must have been held in pens, just as the butchers kept their cattle at pasture. Keeping live wild birds as a kind of larder was quite normal. When Edward III went to war in France in 1346, his huge train of carts included several which were caged to hold poultry.



A man trying to catch birds with a net in a 15th-century engraving. (Getty Images)

 Spices were a vital ingredient of luxurious dishes in the Middle Ages. Chiquart divides these into “major spices” such as white and Mecca gingers, pepper, cinnamon and grains of paradise (a west African spice somewhere between cardamom and pepper); and “minor spices” such as nutmeg, cloves, colouring agents and decorative items. Also under this heading came practical items, such as wheat starch, as well as almonds, rice and candied fruits, pine nuts and dates. So that the cook could work faster, “one should grind to powder the aforesaid spices and put each separately into large and good leather bags,” Chiquart instructed.

 Kitchen equipment is vital for any cook, and Chiquart provides a detailed list with practical comments such as “check the space for making sauces”, and “do not trust wooden spits because they will rot and you could lose all your meat”. Equally there must be enough fuel: “one thousand cartloads of good dry firewood, a great storehouse full of coal. If the feast is held in winter, the kitchen will need 60 torches, 20 pounds of wax candles, and 60 pounds of tallow candles to be used as lights when visiting all the various parts of the kitchen, including the separate building which houses the pastrycooks.”

 “In order to better prepare the said feast without reprehension or fault, the house-stewards, the kitchen masters and the master cook should assemble three or four months before the feast to put in order, visit, and find good and sufficient space to do the cooking. This space should be so large and fine that large working sideboards can be set up in such fashion that between the serving sideboards and the others the kitchen masters can go with ease to pass out and receive the dishes.”

Serfs cooking for their master, depicted in a 14th century manuscript. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 Tricky guests
 The stewards were evidently in charge of the guest list. They appear in Chiquart’s book to tell the cook how many partridges in tremollete sauce (evidently regarded as a special delicacy) should be put in front of each important guest, ranging downwards from six for a king. These birds were not necessarily for his own personal consumption: a treatise on etiquette explains that a lord’s plate must be piled high so that “you can share your plate courteously to right and to left along the whole high table, so that if you so wish, everyone can have the same food as you”.

 There could be complications: “there could be some very high, puissant, noble, venerable and honourable lords and ladies who do not eat meat, for these there must be fish,” records Chiquart. The need to serve fish would also apply if the feast fell on a fast day. Furthermore, some of the guests would have arrived with their own cooks who would prepare certain dishes. Space and provisions would need to be found for these cooks so that they did not hold up the service of the feast as a whole. Another challenge was invalids: “it would be a miracle if there were no ailing or sick people, nor afflicted with any infirmities or maladies”, writes Chiquart. So, having talked to the doctors, he offered 16 recipes for restoratives and special fortifying dishes, including stuffed crayfish and a purée of spinach and parsley.

 Chiquart describes a festival to be held over two days. A real event of this kind was held in 1403, when his master the count of Savoy married Mary, daughter of Philip the Bold of Burgundy. Chiquart’s team was required to present a dinner on the first day, as well as dinner and supper on the second day. The wedding celebrations were held on a Friday and Saturday, so meat was not included. These were ‘lean days’, when eating meat was prohibited by the church. Meat was also banned for the whole of Lent and other specific dates in the church calendar.

 Colour-coordinated menus
 Menus were arranged according to certain basic principles, and the order of service generally conformed to an accepted pattern. At a great feast, the dishes would also be colour-coordinated to demonstrate the cook’s skill. In Chiquart’s first menu, the predominant colours for the first course were gold and green; produced by saffron, egg yolk, green vegetables, herbs and gold serving dishes. The second course of ‘bruets’, or almond milk stews, was white, while the third – lampreys in beef gravy – was red. This was followed by a course of German stews cooked with onions or fish in batter in a green sauce, which had to be carefully judged to come out as a bright and festive green, not a sombre dark green. Decorative pies made up the final course. In another menu, the final course was a spectacular four-coloured blancmange, in which the colours were sharply defined by cooking the four sections separately.

 Meat and fish were the most important dishes on the menu. If served roast or boiled, they were always accompanied by a sauce, and Chiquart gives 15 recipes for them. The value placed on sauces is indicated by the name given to a cinnamon sauce in a German cookery book, called a “sauce for lords”. Interestingly, cinnamon seems to have been very rare in Germany, but was used quite widely elsewhere in Europe.



A medieval illustration of a cinnamon seller. (Getty Images)

 Soups and stews, which might be based on almond milk or eggs, formed the majority of dishes. Yet they were complex, requiring a careful balance of meats, colours and spices. The list of ingredients for Chiquart’s German stew is as follows: “Capons, pork or lamb, kid or veal; onions; bacon fat; almonds; beef stock; good white wine, verjuice; white ginger, grains of paradise, a little pepper, nutmeg, cloves and mace, saffron for colouring, a lot of sugar; salt.”

 All this had to be carefully supervised by the master chef. The kitchen staff on the count of Savoy’s payroll was 20 strong, compared with 34 at the much larger and grander court of the fabulously rich dukes of Burgundy. Chiquart had a kitchen clerk who instructed the cooks as to the number of portions to be prepared: throughout his book, he refers to directing “your companions”, and a high degree of organisation and teamwork was essential. Individual cooks were usually specialists in a particular area with their own assistants, the most skilled being the pastry-maker and sauce cook. 

Food as theatre
 At this time, the presentation of feasts could be very theatrical. Between courses, there were often dramatic interludes, full of elaborate symbolism, with musicians and members of the court taking part. The most famous feasts at the court of Burgundy involved all kinds of creatures, played by men in pantomime horse fashion:

 “My lord the duke was served at table by a two-headed horse ridden by two men sitting back to back, each holding a trumpet and sounding it as loud as he could, and then by a monster, consisting of a man riding on an elephant, with another man, whose feet were hidden, on his shoulders. Next came a white stag ridden by a boy who sang marvellously, while the stag accompanied him with the tenor part."

 Part of the responsibility for these interludes fell to the cook’s department: pies containing 24 musicians, statues made of special sugar and pastry, and even elaborate moving devices for which carpenters were brought in.

 Considering the immense resources and skills needed to create such an elaborate feast, it is easy to see why Stuart playwright and poet Ben Jonson, two hundred years later, praised Chiquart’s successors in the kitchen to the skies:

 “A master cook! why, he is the man of men.
He’s a professor; he designs, he draws,
He paints, he carves, he builds, he fortifies,
Makes citadels of curious fowl and fish.”

 Richard Barber is the author of The Prince in Splendour: Court Festivals of Medieval Europe (The Folio Society, 2017)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Archaeologists Discover a Stone Age “Cult” Henge Site and 4,000 Year-old Human Remains


Ancient Origins


A team of archaeologists has discovered a Stone Age “cult” henge site and human remains that are estimated to be nearly 4,000 years old. Experts suggest that the human remains, found near Stratford, could belong to some of south Warwickshire’s earliest residents.

 Henge was Most Likely Used for Rituals
 A group of archaeologists recently discovered a Stone Age “cult” henge site and ancient human remains at a real estate development of residential buildings in Newbold-on-Stour, on fields at Mansell Farm in Stratford. Unlike Stonehenge, the newly found henge is a plain design consisting of a ditch dug into segments and a bank made up of material thrown up from the ditch.

 Archaeology Warwickshire Business Manager Stuart Palmer couldn’t hide his excitement about the discovery and stated as Stratford Observer reports , “This exciting discovery is of national importance as it provides tangible evidence for cult or religious belief in late Stone Age Warwickshire. Amazingly it is the second such find by the team. In 2015 a group of four henges was excavated in Bidford although the burials at this site were all cremated. Prior to this there were no known henges in Warwickshire leading some archaeologists to believe that a different kind of cult was prevalent in the region.”


Excavations at Mansell Farm, Newbold-on-Stour (Credit: Archaeology Warwickshire)

Furthermore, archaeology Warwickshire Project Officer Nigel Page, who excavated the site added as Stratford Observer always reports , “Exactly what the henge was used for is not certain, but it is likely to be have been used for rituals, some of which may have been associated with cosmological events over 4000 years ago. Originally it would have been surrounded by a bank which would probably have been on the outside of the ditch. Unlike other types of site the ditch and bank were not for defense, but were intended to close off the interior of the henge and make it an arena for whatever festivals or rituals were taking place within.”

Human Remains Could Belong to the Earliest Residents of South Warwickshire
As we already mentioned, the findings also included the buried remains of five individuals which survived as complete skeletons, a very peculiar and unusual phenomenon for the area, archaeologists stated. The individuals were buried very carefully as none of the bodies was found to be positioned on top of another. Experts suggest that the buried individuals could be some of the earliest residents in the area and they estimate that the remains are ancient, somewhere around 4,000 years old. Nigel Page tells Stratford Observer “The rare survival of the skeletons will provide an important opportunity to gain a unique insight into the lives of the people who not only knew the henge and its landscape, but who were probably some of the region’s earliest residents”.


Henge burial detail (Credit: Archaeology Warwickshire)

The three middle burials were facing west, out from the henge, while the two in the two opposite corners were facing east, into the henge. The seemingly calculated positioning of the bodies, indicates that the buried individuals possibly belonged to the same group (most likely were members of the same family), while the people who buried them obviously knew that the grave was owned by the specific group or family.

Further Analysis and Examination Will Reveal More Information
The skeletons have now been unearthed from the site and researchers are getting ready to conduct detailed testing and further analysis, in order to discover more details about who those individuals were.

 Nigel Page told Stratford Observer , “The skeletons have been recovered from the site and will undergo scientific analysis to try to answer the many questions that their presence on the site has raised. For example, it is hoped that the sex and age of the people can be established and it may also be possible to determine if there was a family connection between them,” clearly implying that there's more to come from this intriguing discovery.

Top image: Aerial view of circular henge remains and burials (Credit: Archaeology Warwickshire)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Band Posters of the Renaissance: How Medieval Music Fans Showed off Their Taste


Ancient Origins


Tim Shephard / The Conversation

Did you once put a poster of your favorite music artist on your bedroom wall? Are there a few faded gig T-shirts in your bottom drawer? Have you ever bought an LP or CD because of the cover art?

Many music fans enjoy surrounding themselves with images that reflect their musical tastes and experiences – and the meanings and memories they carry. The music enthusiasts of Renaissance Italy were no different.


Serafino sings with lute while under attack by Cupid, title page, 1510 poetry anthology. Fondation Barbier-Mueller pour l'étude de la Poésie Italienne de la Renaissance. (CC BY SA 4.0)

Musical images appeared everywhere in Renaissance Italy, from portraits and altarpieces to dinner plates and saddle steels, from wall paintings and furniture decoration to art prints and book illustration.

 Looking at these images can teach us a great deal about what people understood music to be – and what they thought music-making might achieve in their lives.

 If you loved music in the age of Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo, the chances are you spent your leisure time playing the lute. And in imitating the most famous singer-songwriter (and inamorato) of the day, Serafino dell’Aquila, young men and women hoped that learning to accompany themselves singing love poems would improve their chances with the opposite sex. 

Portrait of an aesthete
When sitting for the portrait painter, many chose the lute as the prop that would capture their character and present them in the best light.


‘Portrait of a Lute Player’ (c. 1600) by Annibale Carracci. (Public Domain)

 Hanging your musical portrait in your best room, you’d probably hope that your friends thought you looked a bit like the ancient mythological musician Orpheus. According to the myths, Orpheus was a lover so loyal that he sang his way into hell itself to rescue his wife.

Art prints showing Orpheus sitting under a tree with a lute were all the rage in the Renaissance – you would probably have one sitting about somewhere in your study. In these images, Orpheus is singing a song so powerful that even the animals and birds are moved to tears.

Divine inspiration
Contemporary books on music and poetry explain that this scene of Orpheus moving brute animals to tears represented persuasive eloquence, prized as a leadership quality and a sign of a good education.


‘Orpheus Charming the Animals’ (1613) by Jacob Hoefnagel. (Public Domain)

If you had the money, you’d probably have the walls of your study decorated with pictures of the ancient music-making god Apollo and his Muses.

Inhabitant of the mythological mountain Parnassus, where crystal fountains bubbled forth poetic inspiration, the figure of Apollo allowed you to associate your musical pastime with the immense contemporary fashion for the culture of the ancient world.

You’ll have had him represented with a modern stringed instrument (like yours), probably singing. On your study wall he leads his choir of nine music-making Muses, as they confer their divine inspiration upon your own amateur efforts.

Catholic tastes
Even a disreputable music-lover would attend church for Mass or Vespers at least once a week, so Catholic plainsong was part of the background hum of everyday life. It was widely thought that plainsong imitated the music-making of the angels in heaven. By singing prayers, therefore, you could yourself attain some measure of the divine.



An old panel painting showing the Virgin and Child with music-making angels hangs in your parlor. It would be the focus of prayer and pious contemplation for the whole household, visualizing the divine encounter you would hope to achieve by singing simple sacred songs.


Bernardino Bergognone, Virgin and Child with Two Angels, 1490-95, oil on panel. (The National Gallery, London 2017)

On the other side of the parlor, your young daughter is practicing at a small keyboard instrument, a virginals, very popular in homes of all sizes. The virginals has a lid in the shape of a wonky rectangle which is often painted on the underside, so that you can see the picture when you open the instrument up to play.

Yours shows Apollo again, but this time he’s in a musical contest with a lusty goat-legged satyr. Sitting in judgement is the foolish King Midas (of “Midas touch” fame). The loser risks having his ears turned into those of a donkey, or even being flayed alive. Your daughter concentrates very hard on her scales.

Images such as these were chosen by Renaissance music fans to form a backdrop to their everyday music-making. Like the band posters on a modern bedroom wall, they bear rich witness to musical tastes and experiences, and the meanings people found in them. Delving more deeply into the stories these images tell, music historians are learning to look as well as listen to Renaissance music.

Top Image: Gerard van Honthorst's 1623 painting ‘The Concert.’ Source: Public Domain

The article ‘Band posters of the Renaissance: how medieval music fans showed off their taste’ by Tim Shephard was originally published on The Conversation and has republished under a Creative Commons license