Children revealed to be the metal workers of prehistoric Britain

Source.

Scientists believe that some 4,000 years ago children as young as 10 wrecked their eyesight embellishing weapons and jewellery with minute scraps of gold, creating dazzling pieces so fine that the detail can barely be picked out with the naked eye. They were some of the best prehistoric metal work ever found in Britain.

The children may have been working in Brittany, where the largest concentration of daggers decorated with the tiny gold pins have been found, but the finest of all was excavated more than 200 years ago from a burial mound half a mile from Stonehenge.

Daggers at the Wiltshire Heritage Museum, Devizes, discovered in 1808 in Bush Barrow, Salisbury Plain, the richest and most important bronze age grave ever excavated in Britain.

Only fragments of the original wooden dagger handle survive intact, but originally it was decorated with 140,000 tiny studs, each almost as fine as a human hair and set into the wood at more than 1000 to the square centimetre. The price of such extraordinary work would have been painfully high, leaving some of the young craft workers very short sighted by the age of 15 and partially blind by the age of 20.

Ronald Rabbetts, an expert on the optics of the human eye, believes that only children and young teenagers would have had sharp enough eyesight for the most detailed work more than a thousand years before the invention of any form of magnifying glass.

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It would quickly have damaged their sight, however, he believes, leaving them unfit for general work, but perhaps maintained by the tribe for the rest of their lives as specialist craft workers.

“Only children and teenagers, and those adults who had become myopic naturally or due to the nature of their work as children, would have been able to create and manufacture such tiny objects,” he said. “There would almost certainly have been a section of the bronze age artisan class who, often as a result of their childhood work, were myopic for their adult life. They would therefore have been unable to do any other work apart from the making of tiny artefacts and would have had to be supported by the community at large.”

The gold from the Bush Barrow burial mound, now on display in a new gallery at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, was already regarded as extraordinary – made using simple tools but with a sophisticated understanding of geometry and design. But this is the first time scientists have considered the human cost of such work.

Bush Barrow on Normanton Down

“Every time I’ve walked past the cases in our museum I’ve thought ‘how the hell did they make them?’ – and now we know,” David Dawson, curator of the museum, said. “Our metal worker, Neil Burridge, who has made many replica pieces for us, has called them “the work of the gods” – but now we know they weren’t gods but children.”

In the programme the micro-artist Willard Wigan, whose tiny sculptures mounted in the eye of a needle or the head of a pin are avidly collected across the world, attempted to recreate some of the tiny studs, working under a microscope. “I cannot see an adult doing that because your eyesight starts to deteriorate even at 21,” he said. “The quality of the work is phenenomenal.”

The Bush Barrow burial mound was excavated in 1808, a period when there was a craze among amateur archaeologists for digging up the past. The skeleton, buried when the great stone circle was already 1,000 years old, was described by William Cunnington, a wool merchant who dug up scores of burial mounds with local land owner Sir Richard Colt Hoare, as the remains of “a stout and tall man”. He was buried with one of the most spectacular collections of grave goods ever found in Britain, including an axe, a mace, a gold-belt plate, bronze and copper daggers, and an intricately decorated gold lozenge-shaped plaque on his chest.

The decayed wooden handle of one of the daggers had the most spectacular decoration, the tiny gold pins set so they overlapped like fish scales. Far more of it was intact when uncovered, but the ancient wood distintegrated: in a phrase to cause anguish to modern archaeologists, Cunnington described “a scatter of shining points of gold” as the excavator’s trowel hit the handle.

Dawson said there was something heartbreaking as well as fascinating about the discovery. “It forces you to think of children working in conditions like child labour in carpet factories today … the worst of it is they must have known it would ruin their eyesight, but still they persevered.”

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Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

British Museum blog

silver-gilt brooch detailRosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th…

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Black Death victims unearthed in London

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Skeletons unearthed during excavations for London’s Crossrail project are those of Black Death victims who were buried during the 14th and 15th Century pandemics, DNA analysis has revealed.

The skeletons of 13 men, three women and two children, along with seven other unidentifiable remains, were found under Charterhouse Square in Farringdon during excavation work for the £14.8 billion project.

It is thought that the area near the Barbican Centre, which was just outside the city boundary at the time, may be the location the location of the second emergency burial ground referenced in historical documents but until now it had never found.

Set up in the capital to cater for the masses of bodies, it means that thousands more could have been buried in a mass grave in the area. A ‘community excavation project’ is set to take place in July to try to determine the extent of the cemetery.

Carbon dating techniques on 10 of the skeletons conducted by scientists from Queen’s University Belfast indicated three separate “phases” of burials – coinciding with known separate outbreaks of the plague in the capital.

The Black Death spread from Europe to England in 1348 and the layer of bodies found at the bottom of the excavation site are estimated to have been buried between 1348 and 1349, while a second layer were dated to coincide with a second outbreak of the plague in 1361, the researchers said.

The final layer of bodies were laid to rest between 1433 and 1435 – when another devastating event of plague swept through London. Four of the skeletons had remnants of the Yersinia pestis bacterium – which causes plague – on their teeth, DNA analysis showed.

The findings will be featured in a new Channel 4 programme, Return Of The Black Death, during which scientists from Public Health England in Porton Down will argue that the DNA evidence shows that the plague must have been spread by coughs and sneezes rather than fleas on rats – as has been popular belief for many years.

The team led by Dr Tim Brooks argue that the infection spread so fast that it must have got into the lungs of already malnourished victims, meaning the outbreaks were in fact pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague.

Many of the bodies showed signs of poor health and of having jobs that involved heavy manual labour, the Queen’s University researchers said, noting a high rate of back damage and strain.

Four out of the 10 remains analysed are from people that grew up outside the capital, as far north as Scotland, showing that, just as today, London drew people from across the country.

Osteologist Don Walker, from the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola), said he was “amazed” how much information could be gleaned about each person.

“The skeletons discovered at Crossrail’s Farringdon site provide a rare opportunity for us to study the medieval population of London that experienced the Black Death,” he said.

“We can start to answer questions like: where did they come from and what were their lives like? What’s more, it allows for detailed analysis of the pathogen, helping to characterise the history and evolution of this devastating pandemic.”

Jay Carver, Crossrail’s lead archaeologist, added: “This is probably the first time in modern archaeological investigation that we have finally found evidence for a burial ground in this area which potentially contains thousands of victims from the Black Death and potentially later plague events as well.

“Historical documents suggest the burial ground was established for poor strangers. There is no doubt from the osteological work that the individuals buried here were not the wealthy classes, and they are representing the typical Londoner.”

Around 1.5 million Britons – more than a third of the population – died as a result of the Black Death, while about 25 million perished across Europe. More than 10,000 items of archaeological interest have been uncovered since the Crossrail project began.

What wiped out almost a third of Londoners in 1258?

From The Guardian:

When archaeologists discovered thousands of medieval skeletons in a mass burial pit in east London in the 1990s, they assumed they were 14th-century victims of the Black Death or the Great Famine of 1315-17. Now they have been astonished by a more explosive explanation – a cataclysmic volcano that had erupted a century earlier, thousands of miles away in the tropics, and wrought havoc on medieval Britons.

Spitalfields Market in east London where 10,500 medieval skeletons were found.

Scientific evidence – including radiocarbon dating of the bones and geological data from across the globe – shows for the first time that mass fatalities in the 13th century were caused by one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 10,000 years.

Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight, altered atmospheric circulation patterns and cooled the Earth’s surface. It caused crops to wither, bringing famine, pestilence and death.

The Icelandic volcano of 2010, which spewed out ash which disrupted flights for a few days, was miniscule in comparison.

Mass deaths required capacious burial pits, as recorded in contemporary accounts. In 1258, a monk reported: “The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain… Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished; in England and elsewhere thousands died.”

There does not seem to have been any explanation at the time; it was probably assumed to be a punishment from God. London’s population at the time was around 50,000, so the loss of 15,000 would have radically changed the city.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the volcano’s exact location has yet to be established. Mexico, Ecuador and Indonesia are the most likely areas, according to volcanologists, who found evidence in ice cores from the northern hemisphere and Antarctic and within a thick layer of ash from Lake Malawi sediments. The ice core sulphate concentration shows that it was up to eight times higher than Indonesia’s Krakatoa eruption of 1883, one of the most catastrophic in history.

Some 10,500 medieval skeletons were found at Spitalfields market, the site of the Augustinian priory and hospital of St Mary Spital, and the remains suggest there may have been as many as 18,000. The excavation between 1991 and 2007 by the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) was the largest ever archaeological investigation in the capital. It was a member of that team, osteologist Don Walker, who discovered the link with a volcano. The findings will be revealed in Mola’s report, to be published on Monday.

“That was a eureka moment,” he told the Observer. “These people living in medieval London would have had no idea that this global event – one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the Holocene, which is the last 10,000 years, and certainly the largest of the last millennium – was causing the problems.”

He now believes that mass burials in medieval pits across Britain and Europe might also have been caused by the same disaster.

When the skeletons were found, he said: “People immediately thought Black Death, or battle graves, but there wasn’t enough evidence of injuries.” Radiocarbon dating revealed dates around 1250. “So we thought ‘what could it be’?”

Delving into documentary evidence he found references in 1257-58 to “heavy rains” and “a failure of the crops; …a famine ensued… many thousand persons perished”. Specific diseases of malnutrition – scurvy and rickets – were also found among some skeletons, although malnutrition would not have been the sole cause of death during famine. Many would have suffered hunger-induced diseases, such as dysentery, and diseases which are more a product of social disruption caused by famine, such as typhoid fever.

In exploring the cause of such devastation, he discovered that volcanologists had been trying to locate the site of this massive volcano. He said: “What is new is linking the cause of the deaths of so many thousands to this volcano. No-one has linked it to archaeological evidence – and specifically to these mass burial pits. Documentary evidence is not necessarily reliable, whereas now we’ve got physical evidence.”

Mass burial pit in east London – next to Spitalfields Market

Volcanologist Bill McGuire, author of Waking the Giant, on how climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, said: “Volcanoes have a very long reach because they can impact climate…They don’t just affect people nearby.”
He cited an Icelandic eruption in 1783 which produced a sulphurous cloud that hung over Europe for nearly a year, affecting air quality and causing thousands of deaths.

The 13th-century eruption was far bigger, he said. “This was the biggest eruption in historic times. It may have brought the temperatures down by 4°c, a huge amount. Because it was somewhere in the tropics it meant that the winds of both hemispheres were able to carry these gases right across the planet. If you have a volcanic eruption at high latitudes, then the gases will stay in the northern hemisphere. But if you have an equatorial or tropical eruption that’s big enough, then the sulphur gases can spread into both hemispheres and really encircle the whole planet in a sulphurous veil.”

McGuire is Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. Asked whether another such volcanic eruption is due, he said: “It’s been pretty quiet for a while. I’m looking forward to something big.” Only a volcanologist would take that view.

Mystery of Viking mass grave found in Dorset solved

Our post on brutally slain Vikings, gets an epilogue!

From dailymail:

A mass grave found in Dorset contains the bodies of an elite ‘hit squad’ of invading Viking warriors, experts claim.

All decapitated and buried alongside their severed heads, the 54 skeletons were discovered in 2009 by workmen digging a road.

Archaeologists dated their bones to around the year 1,000 but had few other clues as to the identities of the men who met such a sticky end.

Now a researcher at Cambridge University claims to have pieced the story together in a documentary to be screened tonight.

Dr Britt Baillie’s research suggests they were a fearsome brotherhood of killers who had a strict military code – never to show fear, and never to flee in the face of an enemy unless totally outnumbered.

They either were, or modelled themselves on, the Jomsvikings – a hit squad founded by Harald Bluetooth, the Norse king who died around 970 who masterminded a stream of vicious raids on the south coast of England.

Named after their stronghold at Jomsborg on the Baltic coast, their history is shrouded in myth but at a time the Vikings were feared across Europe, they were regarded as the most terrifying of all.

But on this occasion, the men, barely into their twenties, were ambushed by the local Anglo-Saxon villagers.

Stripped and humiliated, they were rounded up and axes and swords brought down on their necks, before their remains were tossed into a ditch.

Dr Baillie believes the murders, at Ridgeway Hill in Dorset, probably took place during the reign of Aethelred the Unready who ruled from 968 to 1016.

A chronicle, commissioned by his second wife, Queen Emma notes there was a group of Viking killers in England at the time, led by a fearsome warrior called Thorkel the Tall, said to be a Jomsviking.

Dr Baillie said: ‘Emma’s record connects Jomsvikings to England at exactly this time.

‘Clearly these men had shown a level of bravery similar to the Jomsviking code. So while we cannot be certain about who they were, there are a number of tie-ins that take us down that route.

‘The legends and stories of the Jomsvikings travelled around the medieval world and would almost certainly have been indicative of some of the practices of other bands of mercenaries or may even have been imitated by other groups.’

Aethelred the Unready was tormented by Vikings and ordered all Danish men living in England to be killed on the November 13, 1002- St Brice’s Day – which became known as the St Brice’s Day massacre.

Remains have been found in Oxford and it is thought that massacres also took place in London, Bristol and Gloucester but the remains found here are unique.

Unlike the frenzied mob attack that took place at Oxford, all these men were murdered methodically and beheaded in an unusual fashion from the front.

This is actually mentioned in Jomsvikings legend which states: ‘I am content to die as are all our comrades. But I will not let myself be slaughtered like a sheep. I would rather face the blow. Strike straight at my face and watch carefully if I pale at all.’

It was discovered last year that the skeletons had stripes filed into their teeth, suggesting this was a way they demonstrated their bravery.

Romans were addicted to fashion

From Spiegel:

When the prefect Flavius Cerialis hosted a banquet at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in what is now northern England, the aroma of grilled chicken, goose and venison, seasoned with pepper from India, filled the air. Plenty of beer was also on hand for the festivities.

The only thing dampening the mood of the occupying forces was the wet weather, and the clammy fort’s select guests were forced to bring their foul weather wear to the feast. On such occasions they favored a garment known as the paenula — a wide, draping mantle made of wool, or sometimes leather or felt — and wrapped a type of large shawl, called a laena, around their neck

The Romans at Vindolanda compiled lists of the textiles they used, writing in ink on thin wooden tablets, and these descriptions offer insight into their clothing habits. Now, for the first time, experts are taking a closer look at samples of the textiles described in those historical documents, mud-brown scraps of cloth that have surfaced from the swampy ground beneath the ruined fort.

To keep their wooden buildings from sinking into the mire, the legionnaires trampled unneeded household objects and trash into the soggy earth. This practice of fortifying the ground beneath their dwellings now yields a rich source of artifacts for today’s excavators.

Archeologists are delighted with their Vindolanda finds. “It’s an explosion of sources,” exults Michael Tellenbach, director of the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum (Rem) in the southwestern German city of Mannheim. Together with other European researchers, Tellenbach is at work unraveling the world of Roman fashion.

Soft and Comfortable

These textile researchers have been searching museums and gravesites for traces of antique fabrics. Even corroded coins have revealed impressions of textile structures. Rem, the museum complex in Mannheim, has also acquired a scanning electron microscope, which allows researchers to view the fabrics used in the Roman wardrobe with an unprecedented level of detailed accuracy.

These fabric scraps, it turns out, provide evidence that Rome developed an unparalleled textile industry. Romans established factories throughout their empire, having learned effective loom building from the Egyptians. Dyes allowed the creation of riotous color compositions popular with the Roman people. Gradually, these techniques grew into mass production of a type not seen again until the High Middle Ages, a millennium later.

Materials were thoroughly prepared before manufacturing began. Experts combed out sheep’s wool to make the fibers more uniform. “Extremely professional production allowed for astonishingly high quality,” reports archeologist Annette Schieck. “The fabrics were very soft and comfortable.”

Some 1,500 years later, clothes found in the deserts of Egypt and Syria are “still so intact and flexible, some of them could still be worn,” Schieck says. As recently as the 18th century, she adds, poor fellahs in Egypt regularly looted Roman graves in search of ancient garb.

New discoveries concerning the cut of these garments may also unseat long-held notions in the field. While examining clothing fragments from the collection at the Roman-German Central Museum in Mainz, Sylvia Mitschke, a restoration expert in Mannheim, discovered pieces of fabric called gussets sewed inside underwear to make them more comfortable.

Monogram or Logo?

Until now experts believed Romans did not use the technique, which places triangular inserts along seams to strengthen and expand a garment. They assumed instead that the size and shape of their garments were determined by the dimensions of the loom, since the search for evidence of any type of ancient sewing patterns had proved fruitless.

The prevailing opinion was that form-fitted tailoring was a foreign concept to the Romans, with both genders wearing similarly sack-like garments. Women accented their femininity by fastening a belt directly beneath the bust, while men buckled their own belts at the hips.

The latest findings from Mannheim point archeologists in a new direction, though. “This has definitely thrown us off a bit,” Mitschke says. It looks as if the Romans might have understood the art of textile design after all.

Now, textile experts are on the hunt for the ancient world’s equivalent to modern fashion labels. It’s possible that previous clues and signs in this direction weren’t sufficiently appreciated. For instance, Kolumba, the art museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne, holds a tunic with the letter kappa embroidered onto it in red thread. Is it simply the owner’s monogram — or could it be the logo of a fashion designer?

Despite scholars’ best efforts, the Romans’ relationship to underwear remains an open question. Mosaics laid in the floor of the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, which dates from the late Roman period, show shapely women exercising in a sort of bikini, but textile evidence of the use of anything resembling underpants or bras is scarce.

Experts in Mannheim are aware of only three items of surviving Roman clothing that bear a resemblance to underwear. Legionnaires, for example, had to protect their genitals with a type of underpants, since the tunics they wore were about the length of mini dresses. Farm workers, on the other hand, wore loincloths wrapped like diapers.

Unwieldy Togas

Their simple daily wear suggests that Romans placed a great deal of value on the comfort of their clothing. This makes it all the more mysterious that the toga, one of the most impractical garments in human history, attained such popularity in Rome.

Senators and other rich Romans inflicted themselves with these cloth burdens that could reach up to six meters (20 feet) long, meaning the wearer was often unable even to don the garment without the help of a house slave. To wear the toga in a dignified manner, the gentry were also required to keep their lower arm extended to hold its folds. The free citizens of Rome crept about the streets thus swaddled, hardly able to leave their homes without assistance.

But perhaps here, too, established notions are in need of some updating, says archeologist Schieck. “In many cases we owe much of our insight into the practical application of historical clothing to reenactors,” she explains. That is, the subculture whose members don historical outfits as a recreational pastime. Upstanding family men in England, for example, have been striding around the countryside in Roman legionnaire costumes during their free time since 1972, when the country’s first Roman reenactment society formed. The group, called the Ermine Street Guard, takes its name from a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman road in the country.

Bits of Roman legionnaires’ uniforms found near a hill called Kalkriese in northwestern Germany suggest a different picture of these troops than is commonly accepted, though. It seems the imperial army wasn’t nearly as smartly dressed as reenactors and Hollywood historical dramas would have us believe. Researchers believe the mighty Roman army looked more like a ragtag bunch of boys who’d just barely managed to agree on the same color shirts and shorts for a game of pick-up soccer.

The idea of soldiers draped in red cloaks, meanwhile, is absolute nonsense. Lustrous crimson robes worn by centurions are an invention of the 20th century. In reality, the military probably favored grays and earth tones.

“Red was a feminine color reserved for women,” Schieck explains. Wealthy ladies owned exorbitantly expensive dresses and coats dyed with secretions from murex sea snails found in Tyre, now in Lebanon. This dye, Tellenbach explains, withstood any amount of washing. Still, women wearing it were quick to seek shelter when it rained, though for a different reason — when wet, the purple-red wool stank horribly of fish.

Cheap Knockoffs

But not everything red was made from the Tyrian snail. Because such luxury items were prohibitively expensive for the average citizen, counterfeiters brewed up cheaper versions of the dye in secret.

The poet Ovid expressly endorsed the discount advantages of such replacement dyes in “Ars amatoria,” his instructional volume on love. “Don’t ask for brocade, or wools dyed purple with Tyrian murex,” the poet wrote. “With so many cheaper colours having appeared, it’s crazy to bear your fortune on your back!”

Yet many luxury addicts set out to do precisely that. Newly wealthy merchants strolled the streets draped in necklaces, covered in perfume and wrapped in the finest Chinese silk. This penchant for fine fabrics even caused an imbalance in Rome’s budget, with considerable sums flowing east for imported clothing. Emperor Diocletian established maximum prices for foreign textiles in an attempt to keep the empire from going bankrupt.

 Manufacturers responded to the crisis with innovation. The researchers in Mannheim have discovered indications of production techniques long since forgotten. For example, Romans evidently wove garments from nettles that matched the quality of exotic products from China.

Still, turbans and other foreign garb made their appearance on the streets of the multicultural city. Even barbarians in trousers were tolerated. In fact, it would have been difficult to find clothing that would provoke a negative reaction on the streets of Rome. Only unmanly men were unacceptable.

Ovid, the beauty expert of the antique world, warned against metrosexual proclivities: “Don’t delight in curling your hair with tongs, don’t smooth your legs with sharp pumice stone,” advised the poet, whose 2,000-year-old writings document an eternal truth: “Leave that to (eunuchs). Male beauty’s better for neglect.”