Thursday, May 31, 2018

Norse-Era Jewelry: Revealing an Intricate Cultural History of the Vikings

Ancient Origins

When you think of ancient Vikings, the first thing that pops into your mind is probably not jewelry, right? The picture that forms in the mind of most people is one of savages with long sharp spears, swords, and heavy shields attacking coastal communities. However, you will be pleased to know that Norse people of old also made beautiful and intricate ornaments; bracelets, rings, necklaces, etc., out of a variety of materials including bronze, iron, gold, silver, amber, and resin. Early on in the Viking era, which is about 800 AD, these ornaments were simple, but as time went by, the pieces became more detailed and sophisticated.

Group shot of the Silverdale Hoard finds. Image by Ian Richardson. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Viking Use of Jewelry
By occupation, Vikings were farmers and, occasionally, they were warriors. Both the men and women of the Viking community wore a wide array of jewelry, shiny objects that added some glamour to their seemingly dark world. Note, Norse ornaments had a secondary purpose, they were also used as currency in trade, which is probably the reason why the Vikings preferred using precious metals to craft their jewelry. If an ornament was too large for the subject matter of transaction, the piece would be broken into smaller portions that would suit that particular undertaking. If you think about it, the Vikings used their jewelry like we use modern-day wallets.

However, not all Viking ornaments were metallic; the Norsemen also created beautiful ornaments using beads and precious rocks/stones. Nevertheless, it was rare for the Vikings to inset stones in their jewelry even though this art form had been applied before the Viking age.

 Below are some interesting facts about Viking jewelry that’ll give you clearer picture of what the Nordic ornamental culture was like.

A hinged silver strap ( Robert Clark, National Geographic / Historic Environment Scotland ).

The Vikings crafted their necklaces from a variety of items including precious metals such as silver and gold, natural fiber, and iron wires of various lengths and sizes. The necklaces would normally be accompanied by pendants made from glass beads, precious stones, resin, amber (from the Baltic sea), and small metallic charms. However, the most common material for necklace pendants was glass, which would be mass produced for this purpose. The pendants on the necklaces were often souvenirs, gifts, or Nordic religious symbols that held meaning to the wearer.

The archeological evidence of Vikings wearing necklaces is more prevalent in comparison to the evidence on neck-rings. Neck-rings that have been discovered across Europe were made of silver, bronze, or gold. Note that most neck-rings that have been discovered were in hoards and not in grave site. Therefore, there is no conclusive evidence regarding which gender wore them. However, most historians believe that neck-rings were worn by both genders as a display of wealth and as a form of currency in commercial transactions. They were designed and crafted in standard units of weight in order to make the assessment of value more accurate. As mentioned above, a piece would be cut from the neck-ring depending on the amount necessary to conclude a commercial transaction.

The Silverdale Hoard, Lancaster Museum. Neck-rings, arm-rings and necklace. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

When it comes to Viking jewelry, the word pendant represents a broad category of items; from Mjolnir pendants, Valknut pendants, Yggdrasil pendants, and more. As much as the ancient Norsemen used a number of distinct pendants , Thor’s hammer appears to be the most frequently worn of them all. Other examples include miniature weapons such as axes and arrow heads, perforated coins, the tree of life, crosses, and the Valknut symbols . However, these amulets have been found in very few graves, suggesting that they were not commonly worn.

You may also be wondering why a pagan community would be wearing miniature crosses. Even at the height of the Viking era, Christian missionaries were adamant in converting non-believers and consequently some Norsemen adopted this new religion, forming a hybrid system of belief. Note, however, cross pendants were the rarest archeological pendant findings, which suggests that only a few Vikings accepted Christianity.

Left to right: Thor's hammer from Bredsättra: A 4.6 cm gold-plated silver Mjolnir pendant from Bredsättra parish, Runsten hundred, Borgholm municipality, Öland, Kalmar county, Sweden ( Public Domain ). Hammer pendant from Rømersdal, Bornholm ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ). A copy of the Thor's hammer pendant from Skåne ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

 Viking bead ornaments were typically made of amber or glass and were some of the most common additions on necklaces. In today’s world these items are relatively cheap and widely used, but archeological evidence from Viking grave sites suggests that these ornaments were rare and not worn by many. Moreover, even the Viking ornaments with beads only had one, two, or three of them, either worn alone or with an additional pendant such as Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. Finding more than three beads on a necklace was extremely rare, which suggests that they were precious and rare, and perhaps symbolized one’s wealth and status in society.

Additionally, seeing as archeological findings usually found only 1 to 3 beads on necklaces, it is quite possible that the number of beads a person wore represented more than just wealth and societal status. It is possible that they signified a certain level of achievement or age. A majority of beads found in archeological sites were made of glass; other materials such as jet and amber have also been discovered but are rarer to come by.

Brooches were very popular in Viking culture and were an everyday essential used for holding clothes in place. Brooches came in a number of styles with the main ones being the Penannular Brooches and Oval Brooches .

Example of a Celtic Penannular brooch, Museum of Scotland. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Penannular brooch was exclusively worn by Viking men and was adopted by Vikings from Scottish and Irish settlers; the trend later caught on in Russia and Scandinavia. Brooches would be fastened on the wearer’s right shoulder with the pin facing upward, which left the sword-arm free. The Oval brooch, on the other hand, was typically worn by Viking women. Oval brooches were used to fasten dresses, aprons, and cloaks and were more detailed and ornate in comparison to penannular brooches. A single brooch would be worn on the shoulder to fasten the wearer’s dress, along with a chain of colored beads for added visual appeal. Oval brooches are believed to have gone out of fashion at around 1000 AD and were replaced by more fanciful designs of brooches.

Viking oval brooch. Museum of History, Oslo, Norway. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Rings, like in most other cultures, were worn around the finger and were extremely popular among the Vikings. There have been numerous findings of finger rings in Viking grave sites; the rings typically had an uneven width, with most of them being open ended, possibly in order to allow them to fit on different sized fingers with minimal effort. Note, however, finger rings only became popular to the Vikings in the late ages of the Viking-era.

This was the least common form of Viking jewelry . In fact, earrings did not exist in Viking material culture until they were found in hoards amongst other types of jewelry. Nordic earrings were quite intricate and, in contrast to modern-day earrings, they would be worn over the entire ear as opposed to hanging from the earlobe. Historians have suggested that Viking earrings were of Slavic in origin and not an original concept forged by the Norsemen.

Arm Rings/Arm Bands
Arm rings/arm bands or bracelets were extremely popular in Viking culture and, like neck-rings, arm bands served a dual purpose; ornamental and commercial. Some arm rings were very intricate and detailed, having been crafted from precious metals such as gold and silver. Arm rings represented societal standing and were a display of wealth.

Nested bracelet from the Silverdale Hoard. Image by Ian Richardson. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Arm bands came in different shapes and designs. Some were spiral in design, wrapping themselves around the arm several times, giving them a firm grip around the arm, and making it easier for the wearer to tear a piece of the end off during a commercial transaction. Other arm rings were only long enough to wrap around three-quarters of the arm; these were the bands most commonly used as currency because they were plain and flat, which made them easier to break apart whenever needed.

In Summary
Vikings enjoyed fashion and the allure of precious metals and they strived to incorporate this into their day-to-day lives by crafting beautiful ornate ornaments as described above. However, unlike most cultures, jewelry pieces in Viking culture typically had a dual purpose, being used both for aesthetic appeal and as a form of currency, much like carrying money in your wallet or purse.

Evidently, Vikings were not the barbarians most people assume they were, they were an organized, sophisticated people with a rich culture that has more in common with most other cultures of their era.

Top image: Jewelry found in a hoard in Galloway, Scotland in 2014. Clockwise from top left: A silver disk brooch decorated with intertwining snakes or serpents ( Historic Scotland ), a gold, bird-shaped object which may have been a decorative pin or a manuscript pointer ( Robert Clark, National Geographic / Historic Environment Scotland ), one of the many arm rings with a runic inscription ( Robert Clark, National Geographic / Historic Environment Scotland ), a large glass bead ( Santiago Arribas Pena )

By Jessica Zhang

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

2,000-Year-Old Remains of Horse Killed by Pompeii Volcano Found in Tomb Raider Tunnel

Ancient Origins

Donkeys, pigs, and dogs have all been found amongst the ruins of Pompeii, but the remains of a carbonized horse are the first example archaeologists have come across of that animal. While the discovery is great, the way it was found is unsettling. T

he reports the horse was found in a stable, complete with a trough, beside a large Roman villa. Unfortunately, archaeologists were not the first to make the discovery – tomb raiders are responsible for unearthing the horse. Nonetheless, Massimo Osanna, the director of the Pompeii site, calls the horse an "extraordinary" find.

Authorities found the looters had dug a 60 meter (196.85 ft.) long network of tunnels under the villa, to search for frescoes and other precious artifacts. Laser scanners show the tunnels measure just 60 cm (23.62 inches) wide, according to Steps have been taken to find the looters and archaeologists have begun excavating the area properly to try to avoid further destruction.

Traces of an iron and bronze harness were located beside the horse’s head, which archaeologists believe suggests the animal was probably a parade horse that was specially bred to fulfill that action and very expensive. The Telegraph mentions there is also the possibility that the animal was a prized racing horse.

The remains of the horse were uncovered by looters. (Antonio Ferrara and Riccardo Siano )

 The recently discovered horse measures 150 centimeters (59.06 inches) tall at the withers, somewhat short if compared to a modern horse, but experts say it would have been a rather large adult horse in ancient Pompeii. It was carbonized following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and no skeleton or flesh remains on its body. However, the form has been preserved through a technique which experts have been using to preserve casts of Pompeii’s human victims . The procedure involves injecting the empty body cavity with liquid plaster.

The says this is the first time archaeologists have found the complete outline of a horse at Pompeii. Experts were able to distinguish it as a horse, as opposed to a donkey, because of the left ear imprint which marks the ground under the animal’s head.

The imprint of the horse's left ear. ( Parco Archeologico di Pompei )

 A tomb dating to a later period was also found at the villa. It contained a man who died when he was 40-55 years old and Osanna says , "It shows that even after the eruption, people continued to live and to farm in Pompeii, on top of the layer of ash which destroyed the city." Amphora shards, fragments of kitchen utensils, and part of a wooden bed were also found during excavations.

This is the second major discovery to be reported from Pompeii in the last few weeks. On April 25, Osanna announced that archaeologists had found the skeleton of a child who died during Vesuvius’ eruption . The seven or eight-year-old sought shelter from the volcanic ash, gas, and pumice by crouching inside a public thermal bath.

The child’s skeleton was found in a crouching position in the bath complex of the town. ( Parco Archeologico de Pompeii )

 Top Image: The remains of an ancient Roman horse have been found in Pompeii. Source: Parco Archeologico di Pompei

 By Alicia McDermott

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

An Eagle with a Blood-soaked Beak: Antonine Wall Carvings Warned Scottish Tribes to Obey, Or Else!

Ancient Origins

The Romans were not afraid of getting graphic if it would incite fear and compliance in their enemies. X-rays and laser analysis of Roman carvings reveal that disturbing images of captive and defeated locals were used as a warning against Scottish tribes standing up against the invading army.

Today the Antonine Wall carvings may not seem especially gruesome at first glance, but a Glasgow University archaeologist has been analyzing the Roman reliefs for months and says the scenes depicted on them would have been far more vivid, and threatening, when they were created around 142 AD. As the study archaeologist, Dr. Louisa Campbell, told The Herald :

The public today sees the slabs in bland greys, but to the people of the time they would have been brightly coloured in yellows and different shades of red. On one hand they were for the soldiers to show their dedication to the Emperor, as they say the work was carried out in his name. But for the local people they would have served as reminders of the power of Rome. They were part of the act of subjugation and the projection of power. And they were a warning not to go up against Rome.

Dr. Louisa Campbell with the Summerston distance stone at The Hunterian Museum. ( University of Glasgow )

Campbell’s work shows that originally blood red, bright yellow, and brilliant white paints were used to catch the eye of a local. Then the warning message was made: even if the person could not read the inscriptions, once they saw the representations of local defeated brethren covered in blood they may have thought twice before rebelling against the Romans…or at least that’s what the Legion members would have hoped. “The scenes depicted by the iconography demonstrate the power and might of Rome in a highly graphic manner,” Campbell told Live Science.

Around 20 stone slabs bearing inscriptions of distance covered, honors to authority, and images have survived until today. And several of the carvings were rather grisly; Dr. Campbell described some of the scenes :

On the figures of the natives there splashes of blood on their cheeks, chest and thighs. On another slab there's a decapitated head which is dripping bright red blood. These people are fresh from a battle with Rome, and these wounds are the remains of that battle. That's a very stark message for anyone who would have seen them when they were freshly coloured.

The Bridgeness Stone, a Roman distance Stone from the Antonine wall. (Public Domain ) Note the decapitated man at the bottom of the left scene – his neck was once “dripping” with blood red paint.

Dr. Campbell explained the significance of symbol of the eagle with the blood-soaked beak, “I would suggest the red on the beak of the eagle (the symbol of Rome and her legions) symbolizes Rome feasting off the flesh of her enemies.”

How frightened the local people were of the Romans based on these images is a matter of debate, but Dr. Campbell believes “These sculptures are propaganda tools used by Rome to demonstrate their power over these and other indigenous groups, it helps the Empire control their frontiers and it has different meanings to different audiences.”

The Herald reports the researcher’s next goal is to see digital reconstructions of the stone slabs as they would have appeared when they were painted.

Victory depicted on a distance Slab by the Twentieth Legion, found in Clydebank. ( The Antonine Wall )

The Antonine Wall was a 3-meter (10 ft.) turf wall topped with a wooden palisade built by Roman soldiers in the mid-2nd century AD. The wall ran almost 40 miles (64 km) from east to west and its ruins show it stretched from the Firth of Forth (north of Edinburgh) to the Firth of Clyde (a few miles west of Glasgow). It was intended to extend Roman control over the lands north of Hadrian's Wall.

The wall’s construction was ordered by Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius and it began in 142 AD. The work was completed in about 12 years. Despite their effort, the Roman Legions which had built the wall retreated back to Hadrian’s wall just eight years after finishing construction.

Relic of Antonine Wall in Bearsden cemetery. (Chris Upson/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Top Image: The Summerstone slab, found near Bearsden. Source: The Antonine Wall

By Alicia McDermott

Monday, May 28, 2018

Memorial Day: 7 Historical Facts About the Holiday

Live Science

While many look forward to Memorial Day as a chance to barbecue, spend time with family and hop in the car for a long weekend getaway, the holiday's origin is anchored in much more somber circumstances. From its roots as a Civil War commemoration to the Confederate version of the holiday still celebrated in the South, here are seven interesting facts about Memorial Day's history

 1. Decoration Day
Though Memorial Day is a staple of the holiday calendar now, it wasn't always called that. During the Civil War, people decorated the graves of fallen soldiers on what became known at the time as "Decoration Day." Still, nobody knows for sure when and where the first Decoration Day actually occurred, with several cities angling for the title. A ceremony at the cemetery at Gettysburg honored the dead in 1863, while women in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, placed flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers on Independence Day in 1864. Confederate women in South Carolina were honoring their dead with grave flowers as early as 1861. Other places that claim to have hosted the first Decoration Day are Savanna, Georgia, and Warrenton, Virginia

 2. National observance
A century after the first Decoration Day celebration, President Lyndon B. Johnson settled the debate — in the official record at least — when he signed a proclamation decreeing that the holiday got its start 100 years earlier in Waterloo, New York. In Johnson's rendering, a Waterloo resident named Henry Welles decided to memorialize local fallen soldiers by decorating their graves at three different cemeteries in the area. A local war hero described the commemoration to Gen. John Alexander Logan, who made it a national day of remembrance first observed on May 30, 1868.

3. First speech
The first Memorial Day speech was given by James A. Garfield, then an Ohio congressman, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia in 1868. (The day was still known as Decoration Day.) Garfield, a former Union general, would go on to become the 20th president of the United States, though he would die from an assassin's bullet just 200 days into his first term. [8 Most Famous Assassinations in History]

4. Separate holidays
The Union lost about 360,000 soldiers during the war, compared to the 260,000 who died in the South. For decades, the South shunned the Union's Memorial Day celebrations, instead observing its own separate holiday to honor Confederate war dead till after World War I, when Memorial Day was expanded to remember the dead from all United States conflicts. Several southern states still celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, although the holiday occurs on April 26, May 10, May 30 or June 2, depending on the state. The holiday is not without controversy, however, with some arguing that it glorifies a part of American history dedicated to preserving slavery.

5. Unofficial holiday
The holiday's Decoration Day moniker lingered until 1882, but the day wasn't an official holiday until 1967. The holiday was held on May 30 until 1971, when Congress fixed the date as the last Monday in May. The holiday was officially renamed Memorial Day in 1967, when President Johnson signed legislation to that effect.

6. Many casualties
More than 150 years later, the Civil War remains the United States' deadliest conflict. More than 620,000 people died during the war. Most of the casualties occurred as a result of disease, rather than as a direct result of injuries. The second deadliest conflict was World War II, in which more than 400,000 American soldiers lost their lives.

7. Weekend plans
Memorial Day weekend getaways have become an American tradition in their own right. According to the American Automobile Association, more than 36 million people will hit the roads this holiday weekend and drive more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) to another destination. Grilling may not have been part of the original Memorial Day celebrations, but it's now a fixture of the holiday. Memorial Day is now the second-most popular holiday (after the Fourth of July) for a sun-baked barbecue: 53 percent of people grill on the holiday, according to the Hearth,

Sunday, May 27, 2018

No Atomic Blast. Fire Melted the Stones of Iron Age Forts Say Investigators

Ancient Origins

In Scotland, archaeologists believe that they have solved the mystery of an Iron Age fort in which stones had melted in a process termed vitrification. The team of experts studied the vitrified fort, known as Dun Deardail, in the Highlands, near Ben Nevis and have concluded that they can explain how its stones became molten and melted.

 Vitrified Forts
Dun Deardail has been dated to have been built around 500 BC, based on carbon testing. It was occupied by the Celts and later by the fierce Picts who used it as a fortress. The outline of the original fort can still be seen today as grassy embankments and it sits a-top a hill, that once had strategic significance in the area. It is perhaps one of the best known of the vitrified forts in Scotland, along with Ord Hill, and has fascinated people for centuries. Many people visit the spectacular site set in stunning landscape every year.

Dun Deardail. At the top of this hill is the vitrified Iron Age fort. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

There are many similar vitrified forts in France and Ireland. It is estimated by the National Geographic that there are about 70 vitrified forts in Scotland and 200 in total in Europe. Scientists believe that to vitrify stone slabs that a heat of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or 1,100 degrees Celsius , is required. The question as to how Iron Age people managed to ignite such conflagrations with their crude technologies and limited capabilities has only added to the mystery.

The experts from the Forest Enterprise Scotland, working with Stirling University and local volunteers, believe that they have solved the enigma, reports the Scotsman. They believe that a large-scale wooden structure over the stone walls was set alight and the blaze reached such a temperature that it burned the stones. Have the team solved the mystery of the vitrified forts?

Dun Carloway Broch, Lewis, Scotland. Another fort that has areas of vitrification. ( Public Domain )

Solving the Mystery
In order to solve the riddle of the vitrification of forts in Scotland and elsewhere in Europe, a series of investigations have been carried out since at least the 1930s. These tried to duplicate the conditions that would have led to stone vitrifying. None of their results were especially convincing and the reasons for the melting of stone forts continued to be a mystery. The failure to provide a satisfactory theory encouraged all kinds of wild speculation. For example, the popular author, Arthur C Clark argued that the stones were melted and fused by some Iron Age superweapon if not an early atomic bomb.

Now the team led by an archaeologist from the University of Stirling have offered what they believe is the most plausible explanation for the phenomenon of the vitrification of stone citadels. The study has shown that a timber superstructure, which included ramparts and towers, was set alight and the resulting blaze heated the stones. The fire was so intense that is was able to melt stones because of the anaerobic environment that developed as the flames burned down into the stones. The absence of oxygen in the anaerobic conditions, made the fire much more intense and allowed it to reach the temperatures that would have burned the slabs until they melted and fused

Fused stones. This was once part of a wall to the original hill fort at Dunnideer which gave the hill its name. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The team is not only excited by the potential discovery of the cause of the vitrification process but also by the insights that it offers into the nature of Iron Age forts and society. The theory can help us to visualize what these forts looked like. They were impressive bastons with stone walls and according to Matt Ritchie, archaeologist with Forestry Enterprise Scotland they had ‘ roofed rampart walls many metres high’ . He also believes that the extensive wooden structures were used to store the precious food supply of the community.

 It seems that the archaeologists and the team of volunteers have explained one of the most perplexing mysteries from the Iron Age. They have offered a rational and plausible explanation for the vitrification of forts without the need for far-fetched theories. However, according to Ritchie ‘ of course the mystery of why the forts were burned remains unresolved’ . It has been speculated that they were burned during war, as part of a religious ceremony or to mark the death of a monarch.

Top image: Dunnideer Castle, built on the site of a hillfort with a remaining vitrified rampart. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

By Ed Whelan

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Tintagel Castle and The Legendary Conception of King Arthur

Ancient Origins

Tintagel Castle is a castle located on Tintagel Island, a peninsula connected to the North Cornwall coast in England by a narrow strip of land. This castle is said to have been an important stronghold from around the end of Roman rule in Britain, i.e. the 4th century AD, or the 5th century AD until the end of the 7th century AD. Tintagel Castle is perhaps best known for the claim that it was the place where the legendary King Arthur was conceived.

 The site where Tintagel Castle stands today is likely to have been occupied during the Roman era, as artifacts dating to this period have been found on the peninsula. Having said that, as structures dating to the Roman period have yet to be discovered, it is not entirely clear if Tintagel Island had been occupied during the Roman period.

The ruins of the upper mainland courtyards of Tintagel Castle, Cornwall. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

 It may be said with more certainty that the site was occupied between the end of the Roman period and the 7th century AD. Earlier in 2016, geophysical surveys revealed the existence of walls and layers of buildings at the site. Excavation in the later part of the year yielded walls, said to belong to a palace, a meter in thickness. Additionally, numerous artifacts were also unearthed, including luxury objects imported from distant lands. Such objects include fragments of fine glass, a rim of Phocaean red-slip wear, and late Roman amphorae, which are reported to have been used for the transportation of wine and olive oil from the Mediterranean to Tintagel.

It has also been reported that this palace belonged to the rulers of an ancient south-west British kingdom known as Dumnonia. This kingdom is said to have had its center in modern day Devon, and included parts of present day Cornwall and Somerset. It has been suggested that the story of King Arthur’s conception at Tintagel has something to do with the Kingdom of Dumnonia, or at least with its memory.

During the 12th century, the writer Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae (translated into English as ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’), a pseudohistorical account of British history. One of the figures in this account was King Arthur, whom, according to Geoffrey, was conceived at Tintagel. It has been suggested that Geoffrey was inspired by the memory of Tintagel as a royal site in earlier centuries to link it with the place of the legendary king’s conception.

According to legend, Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, fell in love with / lusted after Igraine, the wife of Gorlois of Cornwall, whose fortress was at Tintagel. Uther managed to persuade Merlin to use his magic to fulfil his desire. Merlin transformed Uther into the image of Gorlois, and he was able to enter Tintagel Castle to seduce the queen. It was by this way that Arthur is said to have been conceived.

An illustration by N. C. Wyeth for The Boy's King Arthur (1922) ( Public Domain )

During the 1230s, Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, second son of King John of England, and brother of King Henry III of England, decided to build a castle on Tintagel Island.

It has been pointed out that the castle was built based purely on the Arthurian legend connected to that site, and that it was of no military value whatsoever. The castle was inherited by the earl’s descendants, though they are said to have made little use of it. By the middle of the 14th century, about a century after the castle was built, the Great Hall is said to have been roofless, and another century later, the castle had fallen into ruins.

Ruins of the Norman castle at Tintagel. ( CC BY 2.5 )

It is the ruins of Richard’s castle that can still be seen today. The castle remains as the property of the Duchy of Cornwall, and may be visited by the public. In 2016, it was reported that an artwork depicting Merlin was carved into the rock face close to the spot where Arthur was said, according to legend, to have been conceived. In addition, a footbridge (the design of which was selected from a competition) to connect the mainland and the castle is planned to be built. Whilst some have viewed these positively, as they are aimed at bringing in more tourists, others have called it a ‘Disneyfication’ of the site.

Top image: Tintagel Castle, Cornwall. Photo source: ( CC BY 2.0 )

By Wu Mingren

Friday, May 25, 2018

When did the leopards on the royal arms of England become the lions depicted today?

History Extra

The medieval bestiary comprised real and mythical creatures, and the medieval intellect wasn’t interested in our modern post-Enlightenment taxonomy

Hence the yarn about the heraldic painter who visits the royal menagerie in the Tower of London and protests that the caged lions are not lions. “I know what lions look like,” he says. “I’ve been painting them all my life.”

Generally speaking (and there are many exceptions in different traditions), a lion rampant (standing erect with forepaws raised) was a lion, while a lion walking with head turned full-face (passant guardant), as in the English royal arms, was a leopard. ‘Leopard’ was a technical heraldic distinction, and there were no spotted felines on any coat-of-arms in the Middle Ages.

Like all heraldic animals, the leopard carried some symbolic meaning; it was thought to be the result of an adulterous union between a lion and a mythical beast called a ‘pard’ (hence leo-pard). Believed to be incapable of reproducing, leopards were sometimes (but not always) used for someone born of adultery, or unable to have children – a senior clergyman for example.

The English royal arms included the three lions from the time of Richard I (reigned 1189–99) onwards (with a few early gaps). The English usually referred to them as leopards until the late 1300s when they started calling them lions. French heralds continued to call them leopards, and, during the Hundred Years’ War, the French sometimes referred to the English as ‘the leopards’.

Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

How many fingers did Anne Boleyn have?

History Extra

There is no concrete evidence that Anne Boleyn had six fingers. George Wyatt, grandson of court poet and ambassador Sir Thomas Wyatt, made reference to an extra nail on one of Anne’s fingers, which may be plausible, although no other reference exists.

 Nicholas Sander, a Catholic Recusant who was living in exile during Elizabeth I’s rule, went even further, describing Anne’s numerous deformities, including a sixth finger, effectively labelling her a witch. But Sander was writing with a political and religious agenda: he resented the schism with Rome, and his account was intended to taint not only Anne’s name, but Elizabeth’s as well.

Lauren Mackay is the author of Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the Life and Writings of the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys (Amberley Publishing).

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What did they wear in Ancient Rome?

History Extra

The Romans had a variety of clothes for everyday use, including simple tunics, mantles and cloaks (for men) and shawls and gowns (for women). Fine brooches were regularly worn in order to pin layers down and keep them in place.

 Trousers were considered a very ‘barbarian’ form of dress, and no self-respecting Roman male would be seen in anything that completely covered his legs. Loincloths, bandages and leather bands were used to support the nether-regions in the absence of briefs, pants or bras.

The most famous article of Roman clothing was the toga – a large semicircular blanket of woollen cloth wrapped around the body in such a way that it required the wearer to continually support it with their left arm. The toga was heavy, hot and impracticable, but as an emblem of civilian power it was an essential item of dress for all ceremonial, political or official occasions.

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology, with more than 25 years experience of archaeological fieldwork and publication.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Was Henry VIII a good king?

History Extra

The success of Henry’s reign is mixed. Economically, England flourished, partially at the expense of countless monasteries and religious houses. But Henry was also a patron of the arts and humanist learning, and was a driving force behind an enthusiastic building campaign.

He also fortified England, building an impressive navy that would impact the reigns of Mary I and Elizabeth I. But it is perhaps his break with papal authority and his six marriages for which he is best known.

 The break with Rome arguably gave England a sense of national identity, and Henry’s numerous wives and matrimonial dramas have captured our imaginations.

Lauren Mackay is the author of Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the Life and Writings of the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys (Amberley Publishing).

Monday, May 21, 2018

What is the oldest law in England?

History Extra

Habeas corpus is, indeed, one of the most distinctive features of English law and may well be the oldest in force. The law means literally “you shall have the body”, but in practice allows any court of law to demand that any person is brought before it. Historically it has been used to stop a person being held in prison unlawfully or without a fair trial.

 Habeas corpus is often said to originate in Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215. The habeas corpus provisions in Magna Carta were codifying an already existing procedure that dates back to the 1130s and probably to pre-Norman England.

Although habeas corpus is still on the statute book, the version now in force dates from the amended Magna Carta issued by Edward I in 1297. The oldest formally written law still in force in England is therefore the Distress Act of 1267. This made it illegal to seek ‘distress’, or compensation for damage, by any means other than a lawsuit in a court of law – effectively outlawing private feuds.

Answered by Rupert Matthews, historian and author.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

How did Ancient Egyptians mummify a body?

History Extra

Egypt’s undertakers employed different mummification methods at different times. Here are details of the classic method, as used on Tutankhamun.

 The deceased was taken to the undertaker’s workshop soon after death. The body was stripped, laid on a sloping table, and washed in natron solution (a naturally occurring salt used both as soap and a preservative).

The brain was emptied out of the skull via a hole made through the ethmoid bone (the bone separating the nasal cavity from the skull cavity). Next, an incision was made in the left flank, and the stomach, intestine, lungs and liver pulled out. These organs were preserved so that they might be buried with the mummy.

With the finger and toenails tied in place, the corpse was packed inside and out with natron and left for 40 days, until entirely dry. The desiccated body was then washed, oiled and packed with linen to restore its shape.

Wrapping was a long and complicated process, as the undertakers employed a mixture of bandages, linen pads and sheets to give the mummy a life-like appearance, and a mixture of charms and amulets, distributed within the bandages, to ensure its protection. Finally, the wrapped mummy was placed in its coffin.

Dr Joyce Tyldesley is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester, where she writes and teaches a number of Egyptology courses.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Where, in Ancient Egypt, did people live?

History Extra

The thick mud deposited by the River Nile made an excellent building material. Mud-brick buildings are well suited to hot, dry climates, being cool in summer and warm in winter, so it is not surprising that the Egyptians built their homes and palaces from mud. They saved stone for the temples and the tombs they built in the desert.

 Mud bricks were cheap and easily available, so they allowed Egypt’s architects to experiment with large-scale structures that could be raised with surprising speed. Several kings founded cities which grew from nothing to fully functional in just seven or eight years. These cities included spacious elite villas with gardens, and more humble terraced housing for workers.

Throughout the Dynastic age the population was concentrated in the area around Thebes (modern Luxor: southern Egypt) and in the area around Memphis (today just to the south of modern Cairo). Today the settlements have almost all vanished – either dissolved into mud or crumbled to dust.

Dr Joyce Tyldesley is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester, where she writes and teaches a number of Egyptology courses. You can follow her on Twitter @JoyceTyldesley.

Friday, May 18, 2018

When did our kings and queens start using surnames?

History Extra

Monarchs in Britain have adopted second names such as ‘Fair’, ‘Ironside’ or ‘Harefoot’ since at least the ninth century...

 Although early British monarchs may have adopted second names, these were not hereditary and were more in the way of nicknames.

The Irish and Welsh rulers kept this system and did not adopt surnames. The first English monarch to use a hereditary surname was Edward IV. He used the surname Plantagenet to emphasise that he was descended from the elder branch of the royal family – unlike Henry VI who came from a younger branch.

The name Plantagenet refers back to Henry II who came to the throne in 1154. Although it had not been used in formal documents before Edward IV, it must have been in informal use during that period as it was clearly of practical benefit to Edward.

The first Scottish king to have a surname is generally said to have been John de Balliol, who gained the throne in 1292 after the death of Margaret, heiress to Alexander III. However, John’s surname was more of a title indicating his hereditary lordship, an objection that could also be made to Robert the Bruce (ruled 1306–1329). The first Scots king undeniably to have a surname was Robert Stewart (or Stuart) who gained the throne in 1371 and ruled for 19 years. His surname derived from the family’s traditional role as Stewards of Scotland.

This Q&A was answered by historian and author Rupert Matthews.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

What happened to Katherine Parr’s daughter, Mary Seymour, after her mother’s death?

History Extra

Following Katherine’s death a matter of days after Mary’s birth, the newborn’s father, Thomas Seymour, placed Mary in the household of his brother, the Duke of Somerset.

 But the brothers’ relationship deteriorated and as Thomas faced death for treason, he appointed the Duchess of Suffolk, Katherine’s close friend, as Mary’s guardian.

 The Duchess of Suffolk’s main estate was at Grimsthorpe in Lincolnshire and Mary moved there with her little retinue. Her guardian resented the cost of looking after Mary and petitioned William Cecil, then in Somerset’s household, for additional funds to support her. These were granted in autumn 1549, and in January 1550 an act of parliament restored Mary’s title to her father’s remaining property.

 There was, however, very little left. The Privy Council’s grant to Mary was not renewed in September 1550 and she never claimed any part of her father’s estate, leading to the conclusion that she died around the time of her second birthday.

 There is a story that Mary survived, cared for by the Aglionbys (a northern family who had once been clients of the Parrs), and married a courtier in the service of Anne of Denmark, queen of James I. In the absence of documentary proof, it seems far likelier that this tragic orphan died very young. 

Answered by Linda Porter, author of Katherine the Queen (MacMillan, 2010).

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Why did Ancient Rome fall?

History Extra

A whole variety of reasons can be suggested to explain the fall of the Roman Empire in the west: disease, invasion, civil war, social unrest, inflation, economic collapse. In fact all were contributory factors, although key to the collapse of Roman authority was the prolonged period of imperial in-fighting during the 3rd and 4th century.

 Conflict between multiple emperors severely weakened the military, eroded the economy and put a huge strain upon local populations. When Germanic migrants arrived, many western landowners threw their support behind the new ‘barbarian’ elite rather than continuing to back the emperor.

Reduced income from the provinces meant that Rome could no longer pay or feed its military and civil administration, making the imperial system of government redundant. The western half of the Roman empire mutated into a variety of discrete kingdoms while the east, which largely avoided both the in-fighting and barbarian migrations, survived until the 15th century.

  Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology, with more than 25 years experience of archaeological fieldwork and publication.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Who ruled in Ancient Rome?

History Extra

Rome made much of the fact that it was a republic, ruled by the people and not by kings.

Rome had overthrown its monarchy in 509 BC, and legislative power was thereafter vested in the people’s assemblies: political power in the senate, and military power with two annually elected magistrates known as consuls.

The acronym ‘SPQR’, for Senatus Populusque Romanus (‘the Senate and People of Rome’) was proudly emblazoned across inscriptions and military standards throughout the Mediterranean – a reminder that Rome’s people (theoretically) had the last word.

By the late 1st century BC, the combination of power-hungry politicians and large overseas territories resulted in the breakdown of traditional systems of government. Even after the rise of the emperors – kings in all but name, who ‘guided’ the Roman political system in the 1st century AD – ‘SPQR’ continued to be used in order to sustain the fiction that Rome was a state governed by purely republican principles.

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology, with more than 25 years experience of archaeological fieldwork and publication.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Who founded Ancient Rome?

History Extra

Like all ancient societies, the Romans possessed a heroic foundation story. What made the Romans different, however, is that they created two distinct creation myths for themselves.

 In the first it was claimed that they were descended from the royal Trojan refugee Aeneas (himself the son of the goddess Venus). In the second it was stated that the city of Rome was founded by, and ultimately named after, Romulus, son of a union between an earthly princess and the god Mars.

Both myths helped establish the Romans as a divinely chosen people whose ancestry could be traced back to Troy and the Hellenistic world. Roman tradition had Romulus’ foundling city established on the Palatine Hill in what became, for Rome, ‘Year One’ (or 753 BC in the Christian calendar of the West). Archaeological excavation on the hill has found settlement here dating back to at least 1000 BC.

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology, with more than 25 years experience of archaeological fieldwork and publication.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Q&A: Samuel Morse invented the Morse code, but how did he do it, how long did it take, and how long before it was accepted?

History Extra

A well-known painter and keen amateur inventor, Samuel Morse came up with the idea for an electric telegraph when he heard about electromagnetism on a voyage from France to New York in 1832

By 1837 Morse had developed a working one-wire model. It produced a zig-zag line on a strip of ticker tape, the dips of which could be decoded into letters and numbers with a special dictionary composed by Morse himself.

But it was Alfred Vail, a friend from New York University, who deserves much of the credit for what came next. At his family’s iron works in Speedwell, New Jersey, Vail made changes that resulted in a stylus that lifted up from the tape, leaving dots and dashes instead of a continuous line. According to Franklin T Pope, later a partner of Thomas Edison, Vail also simplified Morse’s awkward lookup system, using shorter codes for commonly used letters. The resulting system was much better; it did not require printing and instead could be ‘sound read’.

Regardless of who deserves the credit, in 1838, at an exhibition in New York, Morse transmitted 10 words per minute using what would forever be known as Morse code. In 1843, he received money from Congress to build a line from Baltimore to Washington DC, and, on 24 May 1844, sent the first inter-city message: “What hath God wrought!” By 1854 there were 23,000 miles of telegraph wire in operation across the US.

Morse code was later adapted to wireless radio. By the 1930s it was the preferred form of communication for aviators and seamen, and it was vital during the Second World War.

Answered by Dan Cossins, freelance writer. This Q&A first appeared in the December 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Rome’s Flaminian Obelisk: an epic journey from divine Egyptian symbol to Tourist Attraction

Ancient Origins

Nicky Nielson /The Conversation

It’s a great place to sit in the shade and enjoy a gelato. The base of the Flaminian Obelisk in the Piazza del Popolo on the northern end of Rome’s ancient quarter offers views of the twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto. But while enjoying the outlook, take a few minutes to marvel at how this 23-metre chunk of granite ended up where it has.

The Flaminian Obelisk was carved at the height of Egypt’s New Kingdom, during the reign of Seti I (1290 to 1279 BC), the father of Ramesses the Great. “Carved” is a rather clinical expression for an astounding feat of engineering. Quarrying and moving a 263-ton chunk of granite – with the additional issue of not having access to any metal harder than bronze – is no mean feat.

The Piazza del Popolo and the Flaminio Obelisk in Rome. Image: Wolfgang Moroder /CC BY-SA 3.0

The process used by the Egyptians was surprisingly straightforward. Initially, they levelled off the ground above a vein of granite. Then the rough shape of the obelisk was marked using hard stone pounders. Channels were carved in the rock around the shape of the obelisk before it was separated from the bedrock entirely by carving under its bulk.

Afterwards, the obelisk was shipped on barges nearly 900km north to the Temple of Heliopolis near modern Cairo and dedicated to the sun god Re-Horakhty – and of course to the memory of both Seti and Ramesses.

Egypt in vogue
Though much of our current obsessive cultural interest in ancient Egypt can be traced to key events such as the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, other cultures at other times in history have had an equal interest in the land of the Pharaohs – and a similar penchant for creatively misrepresenting it.

Canopo in Villa Adriana, Tivoli. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

At the height of the Roman Empire, “Egyptianising” architectural elements became very popular. Sites such as the Villa Adriana in Tivoli, built in the second century AD as a retreat for Emperor Hadrian, is positively lousy with Egyptianised statues and architectural elements – including an Egyptian-style shrine dedicated to the emperor’s lover, Antinous .

While these imitations of Egyptian styles and fashions (creatively altered for a Roman audience) were extremely popular, several Roman rulers went a step further. Rather than simply imitating Egyptian architecture, they brought some home with them from Egypt.

After the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony in 30 BC, the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, set his sights on the Flaminian Obelisk which had remained for more than 1,200 years at Heliopolis. To commemorate his comprehensive victory, Augustus opted to bring the obelisk back to Rome on a specially designed vessel, which was later destroyed in a fire in Puteoli.

Upon its arrival in Rome, Augustus added a Latin inscription underneath the far older hieroglyphs of the obelisk, extolling his own triumphs as the new ruler of Egypt. To show off his achievement, he ordered the obelisk raised at Circus Maximus.

As Christianity rose to prominence and became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, the arena fell into decay and flooding eventually toppled the obelisk. It was gradually buried in alluvial soil, lying undiscovered for nearly 1,000 years until it was unearthed at the height of the Italian Renaissance in 1587.

Photochrom print by Photoglob Zürich , between 1890 and 1900. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Renaissance renewal
A product of the Italian Renaissance, Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) embarked on a wide-ranging program of urban renewal in Rome shortly after his election to the Papal Throne. Ironically, while he is credited with reerecting no less than four ancient obelisks in Rome , he had very little appreciation for the city’s own antiquity, ordering several ancient monuments demolished and the stone reused as building material.

When the Flaminian Obelisk was rediscovered in 1587, Sixtus charged the noted architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) with the task of raising the monolith in Piazza del Popolo (at that time a place of public executions), a task which he accomplished in 1589. Fontana was experienced in the art of raising obelisks – three years earlier, he had been responsible for placing the Vatican obelisk (which is heavier than the Flaminian obelisk by nearly 100 tons) in St Peter’s Square. In an attempt to detract from the quite obvious pagan nature of the monuments, both were crowned with large crosses.

View of the Piazza del Popolo, Rome by Gaspar van Wittel (c. 1678) showing the Flaminian Obelisk and the surrounding square. Author provided

With this, the journey of the Flaminian Obelisk from an ancient Egyptian tribute to the sun god to a Renaissance curio was completed. But the monument’s impact on history continued – in 1921, a year before seizing power after the March on Rome, Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) led a march past the obelisk during the Third Fascist Congress . Later on, the Flaminian Obelisk and the many other Egyptian and Roman obelisks found throughout the city prompted the dictator to create his own: a massive 300-ton marble behemoth which still stands in Foro Italico (then Foro Mussolini) bearing the Latin inscription MVSSOLINI DVX (Mussolini, the Leader).

The Flaminian Obelisk is a multicultural monument in many ways. It remains today in its square, a physical testament to the grandiose ideas of three rulers – each in their own way both secular and divine: Pharaoh Seti I, Emperor Augustus Caesar and Pope Sixtus V.

Top image: Roma: Piazza del Popolo by Hendrik Franz van Lint. ( Public Domain )

The article ‘Rome’s Flaminian Obelisk: an epic journey from divine Egyptian symbol to Tourist Attraction’ by Nicky Nielson was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities Announces there are NO Hidden Chambers in Tut’s Tomb

Ancient Origins

The Egyptian antiquities ministry have announced the results of a new survey on the tomb of Tutankhamun. They have apparently discredited a theory, that suggest there was a second chamber in the Pharaoh’s tomb. It had been speculated that this second undiscovered chamber was the tomb of the famous Queen Nefertiti. Mostafa Waziri, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities announced the official result of the investigation and stated categorically that there is no second chamber. According to the Egyptian authorities, an Italian scientific team from the University of Turin found that there is " conclusive evidence of the non-existence of hidden chambers adjacent to or inside Tutankhamun's tomb ". Has this ended the speculation that there remains to be discovered another tomb alongside that of Tutankhamun’s?

The stone sarcophagus containing the mummy of King Tut is seen in his underground tomb. Credit: Nasser Nuri.

The Tomb of Tutankhamun
Tutankhamun was Pharaoh of Egypt during the New Kingdom period, a golden age in Egyptian history. His father was the controversial Pharaoh Akhenaten, but the identity of his mother is still unknown. Tutankhamun became Pharaoh several years after the death of his father and a succession of short lived rulers, whose religious innovations had badly divided the kingdom. Under the boy-king, his father’s Monotheism was abandoned, and the traditional Egyptian religion was restored. He later married his half-sister and died while still a very young man and this has led to various theories about his death, including that he was secretly assassinated.

The gold laden tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. It is arguably the most spectacular archaeological find in history and it produced an unprecedented trove of treasures that have astonished the world ever since they were brought into the light. The tomb and the life of Tutankhamun has remained a source of fascination for both the expert and the public ever since.

Researchers scanning the walls of King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) equipment. (Ministry of Antiquities)

Second-Chamber Theory
British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves had been the chief proponent of a theory that there was a second chamber in the tomb of Tutankhamun . He argued that it was likely to be the burial chamber of the famous Nefertiti , the wife of Tutankhamun's father, King Akhenaten and reputed to be one of the most beautiful women in history. Reeves argued that because Tutankhamun died unexpectedly that he was hurriedly buried in the outer chamber of Nefertiti’s tomb. This he argued means that the royal burial chamber of the queen was hidden behind the tomb of Tutankhamun and that many fabulous treasures were laying there waiting to be discovered. Reeves even believed that he had detected hidden doors behind the funerary painting on the walls of the Pharaoh’s tomb.

Previous scans of the north wall of King Tutankhamun's burial chamber indicated features beneath the intricately decorated plaster (highlighted) a researcher believes may be a hidden door, possibly to the burial chamber of Nefertiti. Credit: Factum Arte.

Inconclusive Survey Results
The theory prompted a group of researchers to test if Reeve’s assertions had any basis in fact. A team of Japanese experts used radar to scan the tomb of Tutankhamun and they claimed ‘with 95 percent certainty the existence of a doorway and a hall with artefacts’. This seemed to provide support to the theory of Reeves that there was a secret chamber and was presumably undiscovered. Initially the findings were supported by a former Egyptian minister of the antiquities, but this drew criticism from many experts.

In 2016 an American survey, used ground penetrating radar (GPR) on the tomb but was unable to confirm or to reject the second—chamber theory. A new Minister of antiquities convened a conference that ‘ decided to conduct a third GPR analysis to put an end to the debate’ . This third survey was led by Francesco Porcelli, of the Polytechnic University in Turin with the assistance of two private geophysics companies.

‘No Indication’
After an exhaustive survey, the Italian team have found no evidence that there was any second chamber or corridors in the tomb complex of Tutankhamun. The technology that was used by the team simply did not find any data that would indicate the existence of a chamber. According to the statement released by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities on its Facebook page:

 the radargrams do not show any indication of plane reflectors, which could be interpreted as chamber walls or void areas behind the paintings

They state this with a high degree of confidence and they are effectively rejecting earlier investigations and the theory of Reeves.

The views of Reeves and others who supported his theory are as yet unknown. However, the statement, issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities would suggest that the argument for a second burial chamber has been decisively rejected. It will undoubtedly disappoint many who had hoped that the burial chamber of the legendary Queen Nefertiti could be once more revealed to the world.

Top image: Sarcophagus of Tutankhamun double image. ( Public Domain )

By Ed Whelan

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Setting the Story (Mostly) Straight: Archaeological Experiment Shows How Mycenaean Stone Masons Cut Stone

Ancient Origins

Experimental archaeology can be a very useful asset when we are trying to gain a better insight on how things were done in the past. One way it helps us is to gain some understanding of the techniques our ancestors used to get through the tasks of daily life. It can also aid an archaeologist in testing out methods and deciding how accurate our recreation of past ways really is. For example, no one today can say exactly what a Bronze Age pendulum saw would have looked like or the specific method in which ancient Mycenaean stone masons used it. But a creative archaeologist in the USA has come across a form and technique which seems to mirror past ways.

 As ScienceNews points out, no Bronze Age frameworks or blades have been found in the archaeological record to date. However, there has been a popular belief for the last 30 years or so that a swinging sharp metal blade was a preferred method for cutting rock by Greece’s Mycenaean civilization . Curved incisions are all that we have today to hint at the procedure.

A limestone block displays a curved, Mycenaean-style cut made by a curved blade, A, and a shallow, wobbly incision made by a triangular blade, B. ( N. Blackwell/Antiquity 2018 )

With no ancient blueprints or artifacts to give them clues, Nicholas Blackwell, an archaeologist at Indiana University Bloomington, and his father George decided to create an experimental pendulum saw. Nicholas provided his knowledge of the Bronze Age and George gave his construction knowhow. ScienceNews describes the contraption:

“a device with two side posts, each studded with five holes drilled along its upper half, supported by a base and diagonal struts. A removable steel bar ran through opposite holes on the posts and could be set at different heights. In between the posts, the bar passed through an oval notch in the upper half of a long piece of wood — the pendulum. The notch is slightly longer than a dollar bill, giving the steel bar some leeway so the pendulum could move up and down freely while sawing.”

The pendulum’s blade was a tricky feature. Thus, they created four versions of bronze blades – a long, curved one, a triangular blade with a rounded end, and short and long versions of straight edged saws. Water and sand were added during the experiment to increase lubrication and cutting power.

Blades on the top left and bottom right produced Mycenaean-style curved incisions in rock. A triangular blade, top right, created a wobbly groove. A short, straight blade, bottom left, repeatedly became stuck as it swung into a rock’s surface. ( N. Blackwell/Antiquity 2018 )

Blackwell and his brother-in-law, Brandon Synan, were in charge of testing the pendulum saw on some limestone. With some strong arms and trial and error, they eventually gained a result - a functioning pendulum saw which cuts through stone following the distinctive curved mark found on Mycenaean Bronze Age pillars, gateways and thresholds at palaces and some large tombs.

Detail of the entablature of the Lion Gate relief, showing the location of tubular drill holes and saw marks. The arrows indicate the erroneous saw cut and the unknown filling material within it. ( Blackwell/AJA 2014 )

While Blackwell and others seem convinced that the pendulum saw was the method of choice for Mycenaean stone masons, not everyone agrees. One of the main challengers to the pendulum saw is archaeologist Jürgen Seeher of the German Archaeological Institute’s branch in Istanbul - the only other known archaeologist to have built and tested a reconstruction of a pendulum saw.

  Seeher published a paper in 2007 stating that “a long, curved saw attached to a wooden bar and pulled back and forth by two people, like a loggers’ saw” [via ScienceNews] would have been superior to the pendulum saw. He argued the two-man saw would have provided ancient stone masons with an easier way to obtain precision than the pendulum saw.

Two young men using a cross-cut saw on the St. Lucia Farm School, 1936. ( Public Domain )

But Blackwell explained away this problem to ScienceNews, stating that the ancient Mycenaean stone masons likely had training and obtained their skills with the pendulum saw as people learning a trade still take apprenticeships to increase their knowledge and abilities today. Furthermore, he suggests people would have worked in teams to make the difficult task a little easier.

The results of Blackwell’s recent experiment are published in the journal Antiquity.

Top Image: The Lion Gate at Mycenae. Source: Andreas Trepte/ CC BY SA 2.5

 By Alicia McDermott