Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Heavy Hitters: 2,000-Year-Old Boxing Gloves Suggest Roman Soldiers Used to Duke It Out

Ancient Origins

Still molded to the form of their former owner’s knuckles, boxing gloves found at the Roman site of Vindolanda in Northumberland, England hint at tales of soldiers increasing their battle skills, keeping up their fitness, and passing the time gambling on fights while stationed in the far northern lands of the empire.

 The summer of 2017 was a remarkable one for Vindolanda archaeologists. While exploring the ruins of the Roman site near Hadrian’s wall they unearthed a wealth of artifacts – from the thin wooden Vindolanda Writing Tablets covered in cursive script to swords, shoes, and dice, excavators had a uniquely amazing year. But one specific find was the undisputed champion– a pair of one of a kind boxing gloves that have rolled with the punches of time.

these are leather boxing gloves from the Roman period. (Vindolanda Trust)

The boxing gloves are not only noteworthy for outstanding preservation, but Vindolanda Trust reports they are an extremely rare discovery. A press release on the Roman artifacts states, “Research of the objects at Vindolanda along with the considered observations by Roman leather and other experts has indicated that these leather objects are in fact boxing gloves and probably the only known surviving examples from the Roman period.”

According to ChronicleLive, the two gloves were found in a location identified as the cavalry barracks of the Vindolanda fort. The boxing gloves date to approximately 120 AD and are a testament to sparring matches which probably took place amongst members of the garrison. Patricia Birley, former director of the Vindolanda Trust who is now focused on conservation and research at the site, told ChronicleLive, “Boxing is an ancient sport and it was practised in the Roman army as a keep fit exercise and probably in combat contests between units, rather like the way the modern army still has its tournaments.”

The boxing gloves on display in the museum. (Vindolanda Trust)

Thus, the boxing gloves demonstrate some general habits amongst Roman soldiers, but they also have a personal touch. Birley explained,

“Items like the gloves are a very personal link to the Romans at Vindolanda. You can still put your hands into the gloves and can see where the knuckles of the owner have moulded into the leather […] The larger one has been patched and repaired but has been kept probably because the owner valued it.”

Vindolanda Trust reports that the gloves are not a matched pair and although they were skillfully made they were probably not meant for “professional” boxing matches. Most likely the gloves served more as a protective guard for the knuckles of their wearer. The larger glove was made from one piece of leather folded and filled with a natural material which acted as a shock absorber. The smaller glove was made in a similar fashion but filled with hard twisted leather instead.

Detail of one of the Roman boxing gloves found at Vindolanda. (Newcastle Chronicle)

BBC News reports of the impact the boxing gloves had on Dr. Andrew Birley, Vindolanda Trust director of excavations. Dr. Birley said,

"I have seen representations of Roman boxing gloves depicted on bronze statues, paintings and sculptures, but to have the privilege of finding two real leather examples is exceptionally special. The hairs stand up on the back of your neck when you realise you have discovered something as astonishing as these boxing gloves."

Vindolanda Trust’s CEO, Dr. Andrew Birley next to the Roman boxing gloves on display at the museum. (Hexham Courant)

The boxing gloves may be knockout artifacts these days, but they are just one of about 20,000 leather items that have been found at Vindolanda. 8,000 of the leather items are shoes.

Other noteworthy finds from last season’s work include horse gear, complete swords, writing tablets, combs, and dice. Some of these artifacts will undoubtedly join others in the Vindolanda museum. ChronicleLive says that the new excavation season is set to begin in the first week of April.

Top Image: The first ever Roman boxing gloves found in Britain are now on display at Vindolanda. Source: Coventry Telegraph

By Alicia McDermott

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book Review - Planetary Wars: Rise of an Empire by Mary Ann Bernal

5.0 out of 5 stars

Science fiction at it's finest!

February 15, 2018

Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase

Planetary Wars Rise of an Empire by Mary Ann Bernal is a suspenseful ride into the unknown. A place none of us have ever been to or would be able to experience in our lifetime. That is what makes this fantasy so irresistible. The story reads true to life but is more exciting and powerfully exhilarating. It’s a dark tale of lies and destruction. The drama continues throughout and I got caught up in a web of deceit.

There is an old fashion quality to this tale. If you are a Star Trek fan I imagine you will appreciate the non-stop misadventures into unchartered territory.

The author writes a compelling story that pulled me in right away and made me feel as if the characters were real, though of course, from another planet. Such a nice escape!

“The whirlwind romance contributed to Anastasia’s inner turmoil. She usually had a good grip on her emotions, but with Jayden, she was no longer disciplined. Every rational thought was discarded while her heart ruled.”

The romantic exchange makes this more than just a fantasy. So much more. The heart wants what the heart wants. And at all costs, so it seems.

Click for purchase information

Monday, February 26, 2018

Did Medieval ‘Pirate Priests’ Exist In Suffolk?

Dig Adventures

Priests were often the subject of pirate raids, but did priests ever engage in piracy themselves?

 Over the last three years, DigVentures’ flagship crowdfunded excavation at Leiston Abbey has turned up all sorts of archaeological evidence about the medieval priests who built this monastery in 1363.

 But there’s one question for which archaeological evidence has eluded us: what did they do to generate an income? As it turns out, there’s a prequel to the story, and with your help we can find the answer.

Leiston Abbey was not their original home. Before that, the priests had spent nearly 200 years living out in the wilds of Minsmere. Now a world-famous RSPB bird reserve, back then it was boggy, unpleasant, and kept on flooding; you can see why they eventually knocked it down and moved to a new, drier location.

However, their original home did have some positives; it was secluded, and very close to the sea. In sum, it would be as convenient a place as any to get up to no good. In fact, there exist several historical documents, which suggest they did exactly that.

 Between them, documents like the Curia Regis Rolls, the Hundred Rolls, and the abbey’s cartulary, detail a suite of money-making activities, like holding markets on a Friday, having the rights to rabbit warrens, receiving gifts of productive land and, in some cases, even farming it themselves.

They also list some rather more controversial schemes, the most outlandish of which are several allegations of piracy levelled at Leiston’s Abbot for illegally co-opting ships that should by rights have been landed at the nearby harbour of Dunwich:

“Thomas, pleading for the king and himself, said that when on 28th October 1293 he arrested in the port of Minsmere a certain ship of Stephen le Frere containing goods to the value of £20 in order to take toll and placed them within the liberty of Dunwich”.

Thomas even accuses the Abbot of beating him up, and stealing back the ship for a second time:

 “The abbot and others, together with others unknown, insulted, beat, wounded and ill-treated him, and the next night took the ship with the goods out of the liberty of Dunwich and into the abbot’s liberty along a certain channel leading from Minsmere to Leiston Abbey, and continue to detain the said ship, in contempt of the king, to the damage of the said Thomas of £20. He offers to prove this.”

Did you notice in the text the mention of a ‘certain channel’ from Minsmere, that the abbot supposedly used to smuggle the goods at night?

 One of the most intriguing things at Minsmere is a 100m long rectangle. Earlier researchers have claimed it to be fishpond, there are hints in the abbey’s historical documents that it might once have been a navigable docking facility.

So, were the priests in effect behaving like pirates? And did this behaviour carry on once they’d moved to their new abbey at Leiston?

We know the original Minsmere site wasn’t completely abandoned, ostensibly because they turned some of the remains into a chapel – the ruins of which still stand today, but only an archaeological excavation can determine whether or not the priests really did actually have a docking facility, and whether those allegations really might be true.

That’s why we’re heading to Suffolk this September to investigate the ruined chapel at Minsmere. Will we find evidence that Medieval ‘pirate priests’ did exist in Suffolk? Or will we be able to prove them innocent of these allegations. We want YOU to help us find the answer!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

What did the ancient Greeks do for us?

History Extra

The first is that it is not only thanks to the Greeks that our culture is so infused with theirs. Just because they invented and built things does not mean, by right, that those inventions, ideas and creations will always continue to be admired. It’s in the way that the legacies of ancient Greece have been taken up, admired, re-formulated and manipulated by every culture between theirs and ours, that we must also look for our answer to the question of why we are so indebted to the Greeks in particular.

 For example, the Roman emperor Hadrian loved all things Greek: he completed the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, despite the fact that no Greek had been able to complete this massive temple in about 650 years of trying. The emperor had created a legacy that, in truth, augmented the reality of what the Greek world actually achieved.

The second idea is that, in that continual process of reformulation and manipulation, we have on occasion completely misinterpreted the ancient Greek world. Take paint for instance. Our very sense of the ‘Classical’ from the Renaissance onwards, has been based on the ‘fact’ that ancient Greek temples and buildings were made out of marble and stood shining off-white in the sunlight.

But ever since the first modern travellers visited Greece in the 17th century, we have discovered evidence that this is, in fact, completely wrong. Greek temples were painted bright blue, red, green: our very definition of the opposite of Classical! And so strongly implanted in our cultural psyche is this – incorrect – understanding of the Classical world, that even today we find it difficult to accept what the reality actually was.

Thirdly, we need to realise that the ancient Greek world has not always been such a source of inspiration and, equally, that it has not always been a source of inspiration for things we would choose to admire now.

By the seventh century AD, for example, the term ‘democracy’ had a ‘mob-rule’ feel about it, which made ancient Athens a very unpopular model for any society, right through until the until the late 18th century. In the English Civil War, for instance, Cromwell was encouraged to follow the example of the ancient Spartans, not the Athenians.

In the formulation of the constitution of the US in the 18th century, the Roman model of a Senate and Capitol was followed, rather than the Athenian boule (a council of citizens appointed to run the daily affairs of the city) and ekklesia (the principal assembly of the democracy of ancient Athens). More worryingly, the same Spartan model that was urged on Cromwell was the model taken by the Nazis as the way to create an Aryan race; Nazi youth camps were directly modelled on the training system for young Spartans.

Finally, although we may like to think that we have taken the inventions and ideas of the ancient Greeks and improved upon them, this is not always the case.

Take ancient Athenian democracy, again, as an example. In ancient Greece, this was based on slavery, and excluded women. Today, we rightly pride ourselves on the fact that neither of these is true. We have improved on the original Greek legacy to the degree that some argue we should not call their system a democracy at all. But equally, we must remember that the ancient Greeks probably would not call our system much of a real democracy either!

We have a representative democracy with a very apathetic voter turn-out at elections; they had a system where every citizen voted directly on every major issue, and in which approximately two-thirds of the citizen population sat, at some point in their adult lives, on the supreme governing council, the boule, of the city. None of this makes the Athenian system better than ours or vice versa. But it should make us think twice about we mean by the ‘legacy’ of democracy.

Overall, the crucial thing we must always remember is that the legacy of the ancient Greeks is a constantly moveable feast, caught between icon and enigma, and one that we – alongside every generation between us and them – have been, are still, and will always be, absolutely implicit in creating as much as the ancient Greeks themselves.

Michael Scott is the author of several books on ancient Greek and Roman society and has presented numerous TV documentaries on ancient history.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Invention or adaptation: what did the Romans really do for us?

History Extra

Rather than thinking of the Romans as great inventors, perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be to think of them as the Apple of their day. Apple didn’t invent the smart phone, nor did they create the first music download, and electronic tablets were around for more than a decade before the iPad. But what Apple did do was take existing concepts and develop them in ways that hadn’t been done before. The Romans did exactly the same thing – they took an idea and developed it to the next level. Here are just a few examples:

 1 The Romans and roads
In the fifth century BC, King Darius of Persia ordered the construction of the ‘Royal Road’, which stretches over 1,600 miles – but not all of it was paved, nor was all of it straight. The oldest paved road in history is in an Egyptian quarry and is around 4,600 years old.

 The Romans could see potential in these early roads, so they borrowed the idea and enhanced it. At the peak of the Roman empire there were 29 military highways radiating from the capital, with 113 provinces interconnected by 372 roads – nearly a quarter of a million miles in total. At the time, and for years to come, this was the best-connected empire the world had ever seen.

 Straight, paved roads improved communication, trade and the movement of armies. However, they were also expensive to build and maintain. Only 20 per cent of Roman roads were paved in stone, meaning that 80 per cent were either dirt tracks or covered only in gravel, which degraded over the winter months. Even the stone roads weren’t always all that great. In the Vindolanda Tablets – a series of ‘postcards’ written on slivers of wood and discarded at a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall – it is interesting to read complaints about the state of the roads that the soldiers travelled on, demonstrating that maintenance wasn’t always a priority.

 2 The Romans copied the Greeks… a lot
Roman civilisation only really got into its stride in the third century BC. By then, the Greeks had been cultivating their culture for centuries. By the second century BC, Macedonia was still the main military power in the Greek world, but Rome was a greedy neighbour and fought four separate wars against it. By 146 BC, Macedonia and the rest of the Greek world had fallen under Roman rule.

Roman architecture is an interesting example of Greek influence. The very first structures in Rome were circular, implying a Celtic influence, but over time that all changed. Instead, the columns and triangular pediments that had been all the rage in Greece for centuries began to emerge.

Another example of the Greek influence on Rome is the pantheon of gods, renamed by the Romans but, in terms of myths and imagery, completely interchangeable with the Greek gods. Zeus was Jupiter and Aries was Mars, while soothsayers and oracles both also appeared in Greek culture.

The Olympic Games flourished under Roman rule and even chariot racing seems to have originated in Greece.

Roman art: Chariot race with the charioteers in starting position. Mosaic of the 3rd century, National Archaeological Museum, Madrid, Spain (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

3 The Romans (sort of) invented concrete
There is a form of concrete that is naturally occurring, so technically it predates humans. Yet in around 1200 BC, the Mycenaeans made floors in concrete. Independently, Bedouins in north Africa also created their own concrete before the Roman era.

However, it was the Romans who were to use concrete – made from a mixture of water, quicklime, sand and volcanic ash – extensively and consistently from around 300 BC, right up to the fall of Rome in the fifth century AD. Indeed our word ‘concrete’ comes from the Latin concretus, meaning ‘compact’. Somewhat ironically, the Romans didn’t use the Latin word concretus; they called it opus caementicium.

The Romans recognised that building arches and domes using a quick-drying, liquid material was far easier than trying to build the same features in brick or stone. It was also far cheaper and quicker than building a large structure from solid marble. It was also the Romans who developed the idea of making a framework in concrete, before cladding it with stone. The Colosseum in Rome is an example of a large, mainly concrete, Roman structure.

Emperor Augustus famously said, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”. While this may be a great line that underscores his achievements as emperor, he missed out the most important Roman building material of all – concrete.

Colosseum, Rome. (© Horst Gossmann/

4 Julius Caesar created a calendar
The Julian calendar was not the first calendar, but has been the most influential in European history. Julius Caesar didn’t put his name to the months however; this was done later in his honour. The old Quintilis was changed to Iulius (July), and the eighth month became known as Augustus (August).

The Julian calendar has a regular year of 365 days, divided into 12 months, with a leap day added to February every four years. This system worked well for over a millennium.

However, the year isn’t exactly 365 ¼ days long. Although this was only a tiny discrepancy, over the centuries it began to cause problems – the calendar year gained about three days every four centuries. So over long periods of time, it needed adjustments, and changes were brought into effect in 46 BC. Once again, what had been in use previously was refined and recalibrated in 1582 to become our modern day Gregorian calendar.

5 The Romans were masters of siege warfare
The Romans didn’t invent siege warfare, but they certainly mastered it. It is fair to say that if Roman legions made it as far as an enemy city or fort, the defenders were at a disadvantage, no matter how high or how thick their walls. Alongside brutal tactics, the Romans had a number of weapons to bring a siege to a successful conclusion.

One of these deadly tools was a ballista (what the modern world would call a catapult), which hurled stones or sometimes pots of Greek fire, the ancient equivalent of napalm. Depending on circumstances, ballistas could also be mounted on warships. The Romans were exceptional engineers who could usually determine the weak spots in defenders’ walls and would keep pounding them until they came down. A later version of the ballista was called an onager, which did pretty much the same job but was cheaper and easier to build.

The scorpio, meanwhile, was like a large version of a crossbow. It could fire bolts over long distances (well out of the range of enemy archers) and was designed to kill careless defenders on the city walls.

Engraving of Roman war engine the scorpio. From ‘Poliorceticon sive de machinis tormentis telis’ by Justus Lipsius (Antwerp, 1605). (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Another complex and fearsome weapon was the siege tower. This was a moveable wooden tower, designed to be rolled up to enemy walls, allowing the troops inside to descend onto the enemy defenders. Siege towers took time to build and needed ramps, which allowed the defenders to see what was coming and gave them time to prepare a counter-attack. Nevertheless, when siege towers were deployed, more often than not they got the Romans over the walls.

If all of these failed, a battering ram could be used against the defenders’ gates. These rams were protected by a wooden gallery covered in wet cowhides to stop them being burnt by the defenders.

Once enemy walls were breached, the Roman soldiers would advance in a testudo (tortoise) formation. This involved covering their heads with their rectangular shields, with other shields protecting their front and sides. Such a formation absorbed arrows and small rocks, giving the men valuable time to get to the breach relatively unharmed.

6 Diocletian tried reinventing government and inventing economics
Not all Roman experiments were successful. In AD 284, Diocletian, a man of low birth who had risen through the ranks in the army, became emperor. He solidified the idea of the ‘tetrarchy’: a system of sub-emperors, each one ruling over a number of provinces, all reporting to him. This meant that local issues could be dealt with locally and that power was shared (to a certain extent). Obviously a sub-emperor could go rogue, but after decades of war and strife, the tetrarchy was a welcome idea that brought peace.

By AD 300 however, Diocletian’s empire was facing economic problems: free trade had broken down in some areas and prices were rising. The emperor didn’t help the situation when he embarked on a costly public building programme on a scale not seen for generations.

 Diocletian attempted to confront these issues head on. First, he overhauled the tax system, which eliminated ingrained inefficiencies. He also recognised that the coinage had been debased to an extent that confidence in the Roman currency had diminished, so he reminted and revalued all of the coins. While this may sound like a good idea, costs continued to rise even faster, creating a huge spike in prices. Diocletian responded by setting price caps on most resources. The penalty for disobeying these imposed price caps? Death. The system of fixed prices was widely despised, and almost as soon as it was introduced, it was generally ignored. The law of supply and demand dictates that if someone needs something badly enough, they will pay over the odds. Under the circumstances, the black market boomed. Fortunately, the situation in AD 301 didn’t last long – once the new coinage had a chance to embed itself in the Roman economy, prices began to normalise.

Diocletian was also a highly unusual Roman emperor in that, in AD 305, he voluntarily abdicated in favour of a two-emperor system. He retired to the Dalmatian coast (modern day Croatia), where he lived out his days in splendour and spent his time cultivating cabbages.

7 There is one thing the Romans definitely invented: the book
After all these examples of the Romans enhancing existing ideas rather than inventing new ones, here’s one that was genuinely original.

The first recognisable alphabet, and therefore writing, was developed in ancient Babylon around 3100 BC. This writing was done on clay tablets – not the most portable of formats for written literature. The Egyptians made a leap forwards with papyrus, thin sheets made from the pith of the papyrus plant. Now knowledge could be preserved on scrolls, which were easier to transport, but still bulky. Paper itself was invented in China around the end of the first century AD but didn’t reach Europe until after the fall of the western Roman empire.

Around the same time that paper was being invented in China, the Romans invented the codex. For the first time, sheets of a uniform size were bound together along one edge, in between two larger, stronger protective covers. And again for the first time, large amounts of written information could be concentrated in one highly transportable volume. This would become the standard way to write and store information until the rise of the e-book 1,900 years later. Across the empire (both during and after the Roman era), the book became the standard format for writing. Most famously, the word ‘bible’ is a variation of the Greek word for ‘the books’ (ta biblia). The invention of the book enabled much easier sharing of complex ideas, including everything from Christianity to annals about emperors.

Jem Duducu is the author of The Romans in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2015).

Friday, February 23, 2018

Priceless Medieval Sacred Text Reveals Its True Origins

Ancient Origins

Arguably the world’s most famous medieval manuscript, the wonderfully illustrated Book of Kells, was “created in 2 parts over 50 years,” Dr Bernard Meehan of Trinity College, Dublin, told reporters at The Independent.

 Around 561 AD, Colum Cille (also known as Columba and Columbus) sailed from Ireland with 13 followers and landed on Iona, an isolated Scottish island off the south-western tip of Mull. There, he established a scriptorium and a monastic confederation which would become an intellectual powerhouse of the medieval world. The Book of Kells was created around 800 AD and contains the four gospels written in Latin calligraphy on calfskin leaves, decorated with elaborate and colorful illustrations. Glorifying life of Christ, this book is regarded as shadowing all other artistic and cultural achievements of the early Middle Ages.

Facsimile copy of the Book of Kells (CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

 Until now, it was believed that a group of 9th century Irish monks at Iona composed this world-renowned copy of the gospel, in one go, but Meehan claims the “last part of the book was written first.” Talking to reporters at The Independent, Meehan said, “St John’s Gospel and the first few pages of St Mark, was written and illustrated by a monk at the monastery of St Colum Cille on the Scottish island of Iona, during the last quarter of the eighth century AD and the Gospels of St Mark, St Luke and St Matthew were produced 50 years later at a new monastery at Kells, in County Meath, Ireland.”

The Book of Kells, (folio 292r), circa 800, showing the lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John. (Public Domain)

Meehan first identified that the monk who prepared the Book of John “had a very particular style which made it stand out from other parts of the text.” Having completed St John's Gospel “this particular monk's work suddenly stops at the end of chapter four, verse 26, of St Mark’s Gospel,” Meehan added. He speculated that this may have been “intended as the start of another separate, standalone work” or that monk may have been killed during Viking raids on the island of Iona, which began at the turn of the ninth century. It was also possible the monk had fallen victim to an “outbreak of disease, possibly smallpox, that hit the monastery in the early part of the ninth century” added Meehan. In 806 AD Vikings raided the island killing 68 of the monastic community, and the surviving monks fled to a new monastery at Kells, County Meath, Ireland with the Book of Kells. It eventually came to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1661 AD, and is still on display there today.

Gospel of Matthew from the Book of Kells is now thought to be the work of a different scribe (Public Domain)

Although Dr Meeham’s new observations are grabbing today’s headlines, the Book of Kells was but one publication in the literary tradition of Iona, which itself was far greater and more expansive than any one book. When Columbus established his Celtic church and scriptorium in the 6th century the island was called Innis nam Druidneach, The Isle of Druids (priests of the pre-Christian Celtic religion). Written histories and folklore alike tell of Columbus doing battle with local Druid elders, who fled here the 5th century escaping persecution from Imperial Rome. A 2006 Scotsman article reveals that in the century before Columbus arrived the “Druids founded a library on Iona” and because they never wrote their traditions down, as far as we know, “the impact that finding this library would have on our interpretation of history would be explosive.”

Another literary legend on Iona speaks of another priceless cache of books, this time originating in “the greatest library in Europe.” Scottish History is murky for the first half of the first millennium, yet several chroniclers recorded King Fergus II uniting with Alaric the Goth to fight the Roman Empire during its fall. According to historian and author Dr E Mairi MacArthur, in the Scotsman article, King Fergus was said to have “recovered many books from the plundered Roman libraries, including rare religious manuscripts from ancient Greek and Persian philosophers and scientists.” These priceless volumes of ancient knowledge and lost wisdom are said to have been taken to Iona for safekeeping in “the secret druid library.”

Trinity College in Dublin is the current home of the original Book of Kells. (CC BY 2.0)

The Book of Kells survived, but it is generally held by historians that all the other books associated with Iona were destroyed in the 9th century Viking raids, but Dr E Mairi MacArthur is not so sure. She told the Scotsman “it is much more likely that the books travelled between Iona and Ireland, or perhaps even further afield. Or there is the possibility that they were hidden for safekeeping."

What with all this talk of secret Druid libraries, priceless ancient books from Rome and now the possibility that further manuscripts, maybe even finer than the Book of Kells, are hidden on this remote Scottish Island, in 2012 I took a documentary film crew to Iona and we surveyed the sacred island from a helicopter. We aimed to establish any overlooked architectural features hidden in the fields surrounding the Abbey which may point towards the presence of a subterranean chamber. Our project on Iona was featured in a somewhat sensational article in The Scottish Sun , and if you think my treasure hunting endeavors are a flight of fancy, then so too were the efforts of a 1950’s team of archaeologists from the University of St Andrews.

Book of Kells, Arrest of Christ. (Scanned from Treasures of Irish Art 1500 BC to 1500 AD) (Public Domain)

Having pieced together clues from written and oral records, as did I, they conducted a series of digs on the Treshnish Islands, near to Iona, specifically in search of the lost books. Claiming that if they found the books “it would undoubtedly be the single most important historical find of our time,” they ultimately failed. Since this 1950’s archeological project I am the only historian who has systematically set out to locate this potentially history changing treasure, and I return to Iona every few years chanting “Today’s the Day” in the tradition of treasure hunter Mel Fisher who in 1998 discovered the 1622 wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, with its half-billion dollar treasure hoard.

Dr Meehan's findings are being published this week in a new guide to the Book of Kells.

Top image: Book of Kells, Folio 32v, Christ Enthroned. Scanned from Treasures of Irish Art, 1500 BC to 1500 AD, From the Collections of the National Museum of Ireland. (Public Domain)

By Ashley Cowie

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The 18th-century craze for gin

history extra

Gin Lane, a print issued in 1751 by painter and printmaker William Hogarth. It depicts the perceived evils of the consumption of gin. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

 Gin causes women to spontaneously combust. Or, at least, that was the theory. There are two documented cases of British ladies downing gin and going up in smoke, and a few more of European women doing the same with brandy. The matter was taken seriously enough to be discussed by the Royal Society in 1745.

We don’t take stories of spontaneous human combustion that seriously any more (for reasons I’ll get back to), but for a historian, the stories are fascinating because they’re part of the great Gin Panic. This was the moralising and serious counterpart to the great Gin Craze that swept London and much of England in the first half of the 18th century and produced (aside from the ignited ladies) mass public nudity, burning babies, and a mechanical gin-selling cat.

Alcoholic spirits were a pretty new commodity in 18th-century society, though they had actually been around for a long time. They started as a chemical curiosity in about the 10th century AD. They were being drunk by the very, very rich for pleasure by about 1500, as shown when James IV of Scotland bought several barrels of whisky. But even a hundred years later, in 1600, there was only one recorded bar in England that sold spirits to the curious (just outside London, towards Barking).

James IV of Scotland. We know that alcoholic spirits were drunk by the very rich since 1500, as the king is known to have purchased several barrels of whisky. (Photo by National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)

Then in about 1700, spirits hit. The reasons are complicated and involve taxation of grain and the relations with the Dutch, but the important thing is that gin suddenly became widely available to Londoners, which was a good thing for the gin-sellers as Londoners needed a drink. The turn of the 18th century was a great period of urbanisation, when the poor of England flocked to London in search of streets paved with gold and Bubbles from South Sea [the South Sea Bubble was a speculation boom in the early 1710s], only to find that the streets were paved with mud and there was no work to be had. London’s population was around 600,000. There were only two other towns in England with populations of 20,000. London was the first grand, anonymous city. There were none of the social constraints of a village where everybody knew everybody’s business. And there were none of the financial safeguards either, with a parish that would support its native poor, or the family and friends who might have looked after you at home. Instead, there was gin.

A craze among the poor
It’s very hard to say which was bigger – the craze for drinking gin that swept the lower classes, or the moral panic at the sight of so many gin drinkers that engulfed the ruling classes. Anonymous hordes of poor, often homeless people wandered the city drinking away their sorrows, and often their clothes, as they readily exchanged their garments for the spirit.

Before the industrial revolution and the rash of cotton mills that would fill the north of England a century later, cloth was very expensive. Beggars really did dress in rags, if at all, and the obvious thing to sell if you really needed money fast was, literally, the shirt on your back. The descriptions left to us by the ‘Gin Panickers’ would be funny – if they weren’t so tragic.

A print of an 18th-century liquor seller. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Indeed, the most notorious single incident of the gin craze was the case of Judith Defour, a young woman with a daughter and no obvious husband. The daughter, Mary, had been taken into care by the parish workhouse and provided with a nice new set of clothes. One Sunday, in January 1734, Judith Defour came to take Mary out for the day and didn’t return her. Instead, she strangled her own child and sold the new clothes to buy gin.

 Judith Defour was probably mentally unwell anyway, but her case became a public sensation, because it summed up everything that people thought about the new craze for drinking gin: she was poor; she was a woman and she was a mother. Judith was selling clothes for alcohol and as the clothes had been provided by the workhouse, she was therefore taking advantage of the rudimentary social security system, combining benefits fraud with infanticide.

The arrival of gin
Before gin had come on the scene, Englishmen had drunk beer. English women had drunk it too – up to a point – but beer and the alehouses where it was served had always been seen as basically male domains. Gin, which was new and exotic and metropolitan, didn’t have any of these old associations. There were no rules around gin. There were no social norms about who could drink it, or when you could drink it, or how much of it you could drink. A lot of places served it in pints because, well… that’s what you drank. A country boy newly arrived in the city wasn’t going to drink a thimbleful of something.

This was, quite literally, put to the test in 1741, when a group of Londoners offered a farm labourer a shilling for each pint of gin he could sink. He managed three, and then dropped down dead. It’s amazing he got that far, as gin, in those days, was about twice as strong as it is now and contained some interesting flavourings. Some distillers used to add sulphuric acid, just to give it some bite.

And so the efforts to ban drinking among the lower classes began. And they didn’t work very well. When authorities decided to ban the sale of gin, there were fully fledged riots. The poor didn’t want their drug of choice taken away. They loved ‘Madam Geneva’, as they called the spirit.

A satirical cartoon relating to the Gin Act, depicting a mock funeral procession for ‘Madam Geneva’ in St Giles, London, 1751. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In any case, the government decided to tax the living daylights out of it. But people simply didn’t pay the tax, so government tried to pay informants to hand in unlicensed gin-sellers. This attempt turned ugly as a number of mobs formed to attack even suspected informants, and several people were beaten to death. Not that the informants were necessarily that nice; they could, and some did, run the whole thing as a protection racket – “pay me or I’ll claim the reward from the government”. And into this chaos it’s almost unsurprising that a mechanical cat should make an entry.

The Puss-and-Mew machine
The contraption known as the ‘Puss-and-Mew machine’ was simple. The gin-seller found a window in alleyway that was nowhere near the building’s front door. The window was covered boarded over with a wooden cat. The gin-buyer would approach and say to the cat: “Puss, give me two pennyworth of gin,” and then place the coins in the cat’s mouth. These would slide inwards to the gin-seller who would pour the gin down a lead pipe that emerged under the cat’s paw. The crowds loved it and the inventor, Dudley Bradstreet, made three or four pounds a day, which was a lot of money. As nobody witnessed both sides of the transaction, no charges could be brought.

A display featuring a ‘Puss-and-Mew machine’ at the Beefeater Gin Distillery in Kennington, London. (Image used with permission from Beefeater Gin Distillery in Kennington, London)

 The Gin Craze was a classic example of a drug without social norms. Every society on earth has had its narcotics (and almost every society has chosen alcohol). But those narcotics have come with social rules about when, where, how and why you ‘get blasted’. Every age and every society is different. Today, young adults tend to get drunk on a Friday evening, while in medieval England, the preferred time was Sunday morning. In ancient Egypt, it was the Festival of Hathor and in ancient China, it was during the rites that honoured the family dead.

Nowadays, gin is just another spirit, but in the 18th century, gin had no norms, no rules, no mythology and no associations. It was anyone’s, and that was its danger: a danger that in the popular imagination was easily transmuted into spontaneous female combustion.

 A final note on these combustible ladies: they were all reasonably old and reasonably well off. The strange thing about spontaneous human combustion is that in all cases the body is reduced to a small pile of ashes, whilst nearby objects – however burnable – are not even singed. A human body actually burns at around 1,200 degrees Celsius. A burning house rarely gets above about 800 degrees. So, while the stories don’t stand up scientifically, a society that believes such stories is very good for those who stand to inherit the victim’s fortune.

Mark Forsyth is the author of A Short History of Drunkenness: How, why, where and when humankind has got merry from the Stone Age to the present (Viking, November 2017).

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

7 things you (probably) didn’t know about Roman women

History Extra

Mosaic in the Roman villa of Casale, near Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy, showing women exercising. (Photo by Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

1 Breast is best?
Roman doctors thought so, but mothers weren’t convinced Wealthy Roman women did not usually breastfeed their own children. Instead, they handed them over to a wet-nurse – usually a slave or hired freedwoman – who was contracted to provide this service. Soranus, influential author of a second-century work on gynaecology, prescribed that a wet-nurse’s milk might be preferable in the days after the birth, on the grounds that the mother could become too exhausted to feed. He did not approve of feeding on demand, and recommended that solids such as bread soaked in wine should be introduced at six months. Soranus also pointed to the possible benefits of employing a Greek wet-nurse, who could pass on the gift of her mother tongue to her charge.

Yet this flew in the face of advice from most Roman physicians and philosophers. They suggested that mother’s milk was best – both for the child’s health and moral character – on the grounds that wet-nurses might pass on servile defects of character to the baby. These same men opined that women who did not suckle their own children were lazy, vain and unnatural mothers who only cared about the possible damage to their figures.

2 Growing up, Roman girls played with their own version of Barbie dolls
 Childhood was over quickly for Roman girls. The law decreed that they could be married at as young as 12, thus capitalising on their most fertile, child-bearing years at a time when infant mortality rates were high. On the eve of her wedding, a girl would be expected to put away childish things – including her toys.

These same toys might be buried with her if she were to die before reaching marriageable age. In the late 19th century, a sarcophagus was discovered belonging to a girl named Crepereia Tryphaena, who lived in second century Rome. Among her grave goods was an ivory doll with jointed legs and arms that could be moved and bent, much like the plastic figurines that some little girls play with today. The doll even came with a little box of clothes and ornaments for Crepereia to dress her in. But in contrast to the much-critiqued dimensions of a modern Barbie, Crepereia’s doll had wide child-bearing hips and a rounded stomach. Clearly, the message this young girl was expected to internalise was of her own future role as a mother – the achievement for which Roman women were most valued.

Wooden doll from the sarcophagus of Crepereia Tryphaena. (Getty Images)

 3 Roman fathers, not mothers, usually got custody of their children after a divorce
Divorce was quick, easy and common in ancient Rome. Marriage was the grease and glue of society, used to facilitate political and personal ties between families. However, marital ties could be severed at short notice when they were no longer useful to one or other party.

Unlike today, there was no legal procedure to go through in getting a divorce. The marriage was effectively over when the husband – or more unusually, the wife – said so. Fathers could also initiate a divorce on behalf of their daughters, thanks to the common practice of fathers retaining legal guardianship over their daughters even after their marriage. This arrangement enabled the bride’s family to reclaim any dowry paid to the husband, thus keeping family fortunes intact. However, a few husbands tried to exploit a legal loophole that stated they could keep the dowry if – according to them – their wives had been unfaithful.

Women may sometimes have been dissuaded from leaving their husbands due to the fact that the Roman legal system favoured the father rather than the mother in the event of divorce. In fact, a Roman woman had no legal rights at all over her own children – the patrilineal relationship was all-important. Sometimes, however, if it were more convenient to the father, children would live with their mothers after divorce, and strong ties of affection and loyalty might remain even after the break-up of a household.

 A famous example of this is the case of emperor Augustus’s daughter Julia and her mother Scribonia, who was cast aside in favour of the emperor’s third wife Livia when Julia was a newborn. When Julia was later also cast into exile by her father on account of her rebellious behaviour, Scribonia voluntarily accompanied her grown-up daughter to the island of Ventotene (known in Roman times as Pandateria), where she had been banished.

Marble bust of Julia, who was exiled by her father, the emperor Augustus. (Getty Images)

4 Maybe she’s born with it…. maybe it’s crocodile dung
Roman women were under immense pressure to look good. In part, this was because a woman’s appearance was thought to serve as a reflection on her husband. Yet, at the same time as women tried to conform to a youthful ideal of beauty, they were mocked for doing so. Roman poet Ovid (43–17 BC) gleefully admonished a woman for attempting a DIY dye job on her hair: “I told you to stop using rinses – now just look at you. No hair worth mentioning left to dye.” In another satirical portrait by the writer Juvenal (c55–127 AD), a woman is said to have whipped the hairdresser who made a mess of her curly up-do.

There was clearly a thriving cosmetics industry in ancient Rome. Though some recipes would probably win cautious modern approval for their use of recognised therapeutic ingredients such as crushed rose petals or honey, others might raise eyebrows. Recommended treatments for spots included chicken fat and onion. Ground oyster shells were used as an exfoliant and a mixture of crushed earthworms and oil was thought to camouflage grey hairs. Other writers spoke of crocodile dung being used as a kind of rouge. Such practices may simply be the mischievous inventions of satirists determined to poke fun at women’s fruitless attempts to hold back the ravages of time. But it is clear from archaeological discoveries that the recipes for some beauty products were indeed somewhat bizarre. A small cosmetics container discovered at an archaeological dig in London in 2003 contained remnants of 2,000-year-old Roman face cream. When analysed, it was found to be made from a mixture of animal fat, starch and tin.

Second-century relief portraying a lady having her hair styled. (Getty Images)

5 The Romans believed in the education of women… up to a point
The education of women was a controversial subject in the Roman period. Basic skills of reading and writing were taught to most girls in the Roman upper and middle classes, while some families went further and employed private tutors to teach their daughters more advanced grammar or Greek.

All of this was intended to facilitate a girl’s future role in managing a household and to make her a more literate, and therefore entertaining, companion to her husband. Although very little writing by women is preserved from antiquity, that doesn’t mean that women didn’t write. Letters between soldiers’ wives, discovered at the Roman fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, illustrate something of the busy social scene of life on the frontier, and we know that Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, wrote a memoir, which – much to historians’ frustration – has not survived.

However, many Romans believed that too much education could turn a woman into a pretentious bore. Worse still, intellectual independence could become a synonym for sexual promiscuity. Nevertheless, some elite families encouraged their daughters to cultivate an unusually educated persona, particularly if the family had a track-record of intellectual achievement. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Hortensia, daughter of Cicero’s great courtroom rival Hortensius. She was one of very few Roman women to be celebrated for her abilities as a speechmaker – an accomplishment that was traditionally the exclusive preserve of men. In 42 BC, Hortensia stood on the speaker’s platform in the Roman forum and eloquently denounced the imposition of a tax imposed on Rome’s wealthiest women to help pay for war.

Fresco detail of a young girl reading, from the first century BC. (Getty Images)

6 Like modern ‘first ladies’, Roman women played an important part in their husbands’ political campaigns
 Roman women could not run for political office themselves, but they could – and did – play a role in influencing the results of elections. Graffiti from the walls of Pompeii provides evidence of women urging support for certain candidates.

Politicians’ wives, meanwhile, played a role not dissimilar to that of modern presidential and prime ministerial spouses, promoting a ‘family man’ image of their husbands to the general public. Most Roman emperors broadcasted idealised images of themselves with their wives, sisters, daughters and mothers across the empire. Coins and sculptural portraits were designed to present Rome’s ‘first family’ as a harmonious, close-knit unit, no matter what the reality might be.

When Augustus became Rome’s first emperor, he tried to preserve the illusion that he remained a man of the people by making it known that, instead of expensive clothing, he preferred to wear simple woollen gowns handmade for him by his female relatives. Since wool working was considered an ideal pastime for a dutiful Roman matron, this helped foster the image of the imperial household as a haven of reassuring moral propriety.

 However, just as in today’s political landscape, the wives and other female relatives of Roman politicians and emperors could prove a liability as well as an asset. Having passed stringent legislation against adultery in 18 BC, Augustus was later forced to send his own daughter Julia into exile on the same charge.

7 Roman empresses weren’t all schemers and poisoners
Rome’s empresses have long been portrayed both in literature and film as poisoners and nymphomaniacs who would stop at nothing to remove those who stood in the way of their –or their husband’s – ambitions.

Augustus’s wife Livia is famously said to have killed him after 52 years of marriage by smearing poison on the green figs he liked to pluck from the trees around their house. Agrippina is said to have committed a similar act against her elderly husband Claudius, slipping a deadly toxin into his dinner of mushrooms. Agrippina’s predecessor Messalina – the teenage third wife of Claudius – is remembered primarily for ordering the deaths of her enemies and for her reputation as an insatiable sexual glutton, a label which even led to her being used as the poster girl for an anti-venereal disease campaign in France in the 1920s.

But before we pronounce on the guilt or otherwise of Livia and her fellow empresses, it is worth considering other Roman accounts of Augustus’s death that paint Livia not as a scheming poisoner, but as a devoted and grief-stricken widow. Moreover, there are such striking plot similarities between the reputed involvement of not just of Livia and Agrippina but other Roman empresses in the deaths of their husbands, such as Trajan’s wife Plotina and Domitian’s wife Domitia, that we should be hesistant about taking such sources at face value.

What is most likely is that recycled stories portraying emperor’s wives as poisonous traitors and conspirators in fact spoke to anxieties about how close these women were to the heart of power during the age of emperors. Where once power had resided in the Roman senate, now women presided over a household that was also the epicentre of government. As US first lady Nancy Reagan once said, “For eight years, I was sleeping with the president, and if that doesn’t give you special access, I don’t know what does”. The question of how much influence women did – and should – have in that set-up was one that preoccupied the Romans as powerfully as it preoccupies us today.

Annelise Freisenbruch is a classicist and author of The First Ladies of Rome. Her first historical novel, Rivals of the Republic, was published by Duckworth in the UK and The Overlook Press in the US in the autumn of 2016. Inspired by historical accounts of Hortensia, daughter of Cicero’s great law court rival Hortensius Hortalus, it is the first installment of the Blood of Rome series of Roman crime mysteries.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Legendary Origins of Merlin the Magician

Ancient Origins

Most people today have heard of Merlin the Magician, as his name has been popularized over the centuries and his story has been dramatized in numerous novels, films, and television programs. The powerful wizard is depicted with many magical powers, including the power of shapeshifting and is well-known in mythology as a tutor and mentor to the legendary King Arthur, ultimately guiding him towards becoming the king of Camelot. While these general tales are well-known, Merlin’s initial appearances were only somewhat linked to Arthur. It took many decades of adaptations before Merlin became the wizard of Arthurian legend he is known as today.

Merlin the wizard. Credit: Andy / flickr

It is common belief that Merlin was created as a figure for Arthurian legend. While Merlin the Wizard was a very prominent character in the stories of Camelot, that is not where he originated. Writer Geoffrey of Monmouth is credited with creating Merlin in his 1136 AD work, Historia Regum Britanniae – The History of Kings of Britain. While a large portion of Historia Regum Britanniae is a historical account of the former kings of Britain, Merlin was included as a fictional character (although it is likely that Geoffrey intended for readers to believe he was a figure extracted from long-lost ancient texts). Merlin was paradoxical, as he was both the son of the devil and the servant of God.

Merlin was created as a combination of several historical and legendary figures. Geoffrey combined stories of North Brythonic prophet and madman, Myrddin Wyllt, and Romano-British war leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus, to create Merlin Ambrosius. Ambrosius was a figure in Nennius' Historia Brittonum. In Historia Brittonum, British king Vortigern wished to erect a tower, but each time he tried it would collapse before completion. He was told that to prevent this, he would have to first sprinkle the ground beneath the tower with the blood of a child who was born without a father. Ambrosius was thought to have been born without a father, so he was brought before Vortigern. Ambrosius explains to Vortigern that the tower could not be supported upon the foundation because two battling dragons lived beneath, representing the Saxons and the Britons. Ambrosius convinced Vortigern that the tower will only stand with Ambrosius as a leader, and Vortigern gave Ambrosius the tower, which is also the kingdom. Geoffrey retells this story with Merlin as the child born without a father, although he retains the character of Ambrosius.

Illumination of a 15th century manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae showing king of the Britons Vortigern and Ambros waching the fight between two dragons. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Geoffrey’s version of the story, he includes a long section containing Merlin’s prophecies, along with two other stories, which led to the inclusion of Merlin into Arthurian legend. These include the tale of Merlin creating Stonehenge as the burial location for Ambrosius, and the story of Uther Pendragon sneaking into Tintagel where he father Arthur with Igraine, his enemy’s wife. This was the extent of Geoffrey’s tales of Merlin. Geoffrey does not include any stories of Merlin acting as a tutor to Arthur, which is how Merlin is most well-known today. Geoffery’s character of Merlin quickly became popular, particularly in Wales, and from there the tales were adapted, eventually leading to Merlin’s role as Arthur’s tutor.

A giant helps Merlin build Stonehenge. From a manuscript of the Roman de Brut by Wace (Wikimedia Commons)

 Many years after Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Robert de Boron composed a poem called Merlin. Boron’s Merlin has the same origins as Geoffrey’s creation, but Boron places special emphasis on Merlin’s shapeshifting powers, connection to the Holy Grail, and his jokester personality. Boron also introduces Blaise, Merlin’s master. Boron’s poem was eventually re-written in prose as Estoire de Merlin, which also places much focus upon Merlin’s shapeshifting. Over the years, Merlin was interspersed through the tales of Arthurian legend. Some writings placed much focus upon Merlin as Arthur’s mentor, while others did not mention Merlin at all. In some tales Merlin was viewed as an evil figure who did no good in his life, while in others he was viewed favorably as Arthur’s teacher and mentor.

Merlin reciting his poem in a 13th-century illustration for ‘Merlin’ by Robert de Boron (Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually, from the various tales emerged Merlin’s downfall, at the hands of Niviane (Vivien), the king of Northumberland’s daughter. Arthur convinces Niviane to stay in his castle, under Merlin’s encouragement. Merlin falls in love with Niviane. However, Niviane fears Merlin will use his magical powers to take advantage of her. She swears that she will never fall in love with him, unless he teaches her all of the magic he knows. Merlin agrees. Merlin and Niviane depart to return to Northumberland, when they are called back to assist King Arthur. As they are returning, they stop to stay in a stone chamber, where two lovers once died and were buried together. When Merlin falls asleep, Niviane places him under a spell, and traps him within the stone tomb, where he dies. Merlin had never realized that his desire for Niviane, and his willingness to teach her his magical ways, would eventually lead to his untimely death.

Merlin and Vivien dated 1867 by Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

From Merlin’s inception through the writings of Geoffrey, the wizard appeared in many subsequent tales, stories, and poems. Today, Merlin is most well-known for being the wizard who tutored and taught the young Arthur, before he grew to become the King of Camelot. It was under Merlin’s counsel that Arthur became the king that he was. While this legend continues on today, it is interesting to see the many variations of Merlin, from an evil wizard, to a shapeshifter, to one who met his downfall from teaching his powers to the woman he loved. This powerful and versatile character caught the attention of many people centuries ago, and continues to play a prominent role in today’s storytelling.

By M R Reese

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Confusing Horned Helmets Depicted in the Oseberg Viking Age Tapestries

Ancient Origins

By ThorNews

If you claim that Vikings did not use horned helmets, you are right. If you claim that Vikings used horned helmets, you may also be right. However, horned helmets were probably only used on very special occasions if we are to interpret images depicted on textiles found in the Oseberg Viking ship grave.

Historians and archaeologists do agree that Vikings did not use horned helmets, and that this is a myth created, among others, by Richard Wagner’s opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of Nibelung) that premiered in 1876.

 Costume designer Carl Emil Doepler got his inspiration from Germanic artworks, and in the opera he equipped the evil characters with horned helmets while the heroes got helmets decorated with wings made of feathers.

This is a monochrome photograph taken of Hoffman's 14 set designs (unknown number) for Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen opera in 1876. (Public Domain)

Thanks to Wagner’s opera, horned helmets still are a powerful symbol representing Vikings and the Viking Age.

From Richard Wagner’s opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, 1876 (Source: ThorNews)

Religious Motifs
In the autumn of 834 AD, two elderly women were buried inside a Viking ship in Vestfold, Southeast Norway. They were placed next to each other in a made bed inside a burial chamber placed right at the mast.

Ever since the excavation in 1904-1905, there have been put forward many theories about who these women were.

One dominating theory is that the oldest of the women was a powerful völva sorceress, while others believe she was a priestess of the Norse goddess Freyja – the goddess associated with love and fertility, but also with seiðr sorcery and death.

Inside the Oseberg ship grave there were, in addition to the beautifully decorated Viking ship itself, hundreds of objects for both everyday use and solemn occasions, including one richly decorated wooden cart probably used in religious ceremonies.

Wooden cart found at the Oseberg burial mound, Norway. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The grave also contained the largest collection of textiles and textile tools ever discovered in a single Viking Age grave, and all the beautiful and colorful fabrics are uniquely well-preserved due to the surprisingly good storage conditions inside the burial mound.

The hoard includes the famous tapestry showing a religious procession, the so-called Oseberg Tapestry, many other textiles such as exotic silk thread embroideries imported from Central Asia were found. There were also discovered several narrow tapestries thought to have lined the grave chamber.

They portray a variety of people, some obviously wearing a costume, along with wagons, animals and buildings, most likely representing different religious scenes.

The Oseberg Tapestry
The Oseberg Tapestry consists of two parts: a left and a right side, and the scene on the left side most likely represents a religious procession of three horse-drawn wagons followed by people on foot.

The Oseberg Tapestry – Left Side. (Watercolor Reconstruction: Mary Storm / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)

The front panel of the ceremonial cart found in the Viking ship grave is decorated with intertwined animals, including cats, implying that the older woman may have been a priestess of Freyja.

 It is tempting to draw the conclusion that one of the two persons in the wagon depicted in the Oseberg Tapestry, could represent the priestess herself.

It seems like the figure with the horned helmet is leading the procession. He is somewhat larger than the others, something that may indicate his high status. The figure is possibly portraying the god Odin.

The Oseberg Tapestry – Right Side. (Watercolor Reconstruction: Mary Storm / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)

The right side of the Oseberg Tapestry can also be interpreted in many different ways, but it is clear that the horse riders and the people walking with spears all are a part of the procession, and the building depicted to the left could possibly be a Norse temple.

The horned figure also appears in another textile fragment discovered inside the burial chamber. He is holding a pair of crossed spears in one hand facing a man wearing something resembling a bear skin.

Oseberg textile fragment: Horned figure (left) with crossed spears facing a person wearing bear skin. (Drawing / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)

It is tempting to interpret the scene as Odin and a Norse berserker warrior (Old Norse: ber-serkir, meaning “bear-shirt”) who was said to be Odin’s special warriors.

The fragment also portrays a group of women bearing shields interpreted to be “shieldmaidens” (Old Norse: skjaldmær), women who had chosen to fight as warriors.

Confusing Horns
So far, there has been found only one complete helmet dating back to the Viking Age (c. 793 – c. 1066 AD), the Gjermundbu helmet, and it did not have any animal horns mounted. Neither the sagas nor other written sources from the time tell anything about Vikings wearing horned helmets.

Gjermundbu helmet, the only helmet found that dates to the Viking Age. (CC BY 2.0)

Besides, fighting with long horns on top of the head would be very impractical even for a highly skilled Viking warrior.

Nevertheless, depictions in fragments found in the Oseberg ship grave document that horned helmets were known in the Norse culture.

Maybe they were used during special religious ceremonies and as part of a costume portraying Odin?

Or, are the tapestries only telling tales with roots in Norse mythology where Odin the Allfather is depicted as the most powerful among gods and humans – highlighted by his increased size and horns?

Hopefully, future research will give us more answers about the exciting and still undiscovered Norse culture.

Top image: Section of tapestry discovered in the Oseberg ship burial mound showing a figure wearing a horned helmet. (Watercolor reconstruction: Mary Storm, 1940 / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo) (Source: Thornews)

The article ‘The Confusing Horned Helmets Depicted in the Oseberg Viking Age Tapestries’ originally appeared on ThorNews and has been republished with permission.