Catacomb saints in all of their splendour

From DM:

A relic hunter dubbed ‘Indiana Bones’ has lifted the lid on a macabre collection of 400-year-old jewel-encrusted skeletons unearthed in churches across Europe.

Art historian Paul Koudounaris hunted down and photographed dozens of gruesome skeletons in some of the world’s most secretive religious establishments. Incredibly, some of the skeletons, said to be the remains of early Christian martyrs, were even found hidden away in lock-ups and containers. They are now the subject of a new book, which sheds light on the forgotten ornamented relics for the first time.

St Benedictus

Thousands of skeletons were dug up from Roman catacombs in the 16th century and installed in towns around Germany, Austria and Switzerland on the orders of the Vatican. They were sent to Catholic churches and religious houses to replace the relics destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Mistaken for the remains of early Christian martyrs, the morbid relics, known as the Catacomb Saints, became shrines reminding of the spiritual treasures of the afterlife. They were also symbols of the Catholic Church’s newly found strength in previously Protestant areas.

St Luciana

Each one was painstakingly decorated in thousands of pounds worth of gold, silver and gems by devoted followers before being displayed in church niches. Some took up to five years to decorate. They were renamed as saints, although none of them qualified for the title under the strict rules of the Catholic church which require saints to have been canonised. But by the 19th century they had become morbid reminders of an embarrassing past and many were stripped of their honours and discarded.

Mr Koudounaris’ new book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, is the first time the skeletons have appeared in print.

St Valerius

 ‘I was working on another book looking into charnel houses when I came across the existence of these skeletons. As I discovered more about them I had this feeling that it was my duty to tell their fascinating story. After they were found in the Roman catacombs the Vatican authorities would sign certificates identifying them as martyrs then they put the bones in boxes and sent them northwards. The skeletons would then be dressed and decorated in jewels, gold and silver, mostly by nuns. They had to be handled by those who had taken a sacred vow to the church – these were believed to be martyrs and they couldn’t have just anyone handling them. They were symbols of the faith triamphant and were made saints in the municipalities. One of the reasons they were so important was not for their spiritual merit, which was pretty dubious, but for their social importance. They were thought to be miraculous and really solidified people’s bond with a town. This reaffirmed the prestige of the town itself.’

He added: ‘It’s impossible to put a modern-day value on the skeletons.’

More images here.

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Legio IX Hispana – The Lost Legion

From BBC News:

One of the most enduring legends of Roman Britain concerns the disappearance of the Ninth Legion.

The theory that 5,000 of Rome’s finest soldiers were lost in the swirling mists of Caledonia, as they marched north to put down a rebellion, forms the basis of a new film, The Eagle, but how much of it is true?

It is easy to understand the appeal of stories surrounding the loss of the Roman Ninth Legion – a disadvantaged band of British warriors inflicting a humiliating defeat upon a well-trained, heavily-armoured professional army.

It’s the ultimate triumph of the underdog – an unlikely tale of victory against the odds. Recently, however, the story has seeped further into the national consciousness of both England and Scotland.

For the English, the massacre of the Ninth is an inspiring tale of home-grown “Davids” successfully taking on a relentless European “Goliath”. For the Scots, given the debate on devolved government and national identity, not to say the cultural impact of Braveheart, the tale has gained extra currency – freedom-loving highlanders resisting monolithic, London-based imperialists.

The legend of the Ninth gained form thanks to acclaimed novelist Rosemary Sutcliff, whose masterpiece, The Eagle of the Ninth, became an instant bestseller when published in 1954.

Since then, generations of children and adults have been entranced by the story of a young Roman officer, Marcus Aquila, travelling north of Hadrian’s Wall in order to uncover the truth about his father, lost with the Ninth, and the whereabouts of the Legion’s battle standard, the bronze eagle.

The historians have dissented, theorising that the Ninth did not disappear in Britain at all, arguing both book and film are wrong. Their theory has been far more mundane – the legion was, in fact, a victim of strategic transfer, swapping the cold expanse of northern England, for arid wastes in the Middle East. Here, sometime before AD 160, they were wiped out in a war against the Persians.

But, contrary to this view, there is not one shred of evidence that the Ninth were ever taken out of Britain. It’s just a guess which, over time, has taken on a sheen of cast iron certainty. Three stamped tiles bearing the unit number of the Ninth found at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, have been used to support the idea of transfer from Britain.

But these all seem to date to the 80s AD, when detachments of the Ninth were indeed on the Rhine fighting Germanic tribes. They do not prove that the Ninth left Britain for good.

In fact, the last certain piece of evidence relating to the existence of the Legion from anywhere in the Roman Empire comes from York where an inscription, dating to AD 108, credits the Ninth with rebuilding the fortress in stone. Some time between then and the mid-2nd Century, when a record of all Legions was compiled, the unit had ceased to exist.

But what happened to the Ninth?

Theories on the Ninth

  • Ambushed in Caledonia while fighting revolt
  • Destroyed in the Bar Kokhba Jewish revolt
  • Wiped out in battle against the Parthians

The early years of the 2nd Century were deeply traumatic for Britannia. The Roman writer Fronto observed that, in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117 – 138), large numbers of Roman soldiers were killed by the British.

The number and full extent of these losses remain unknown, but they were evidently significant. The anonymously authored Augustan History, compiled in the 3rd Century, provides further detail, noting that when Hadrian became emperor, “the Britons could not be kept under Roman control”.

The British problem was of deep concern to Roman central government. Thanks to a tombstone recovered from Ferentinum in Italy, we know that emergency reinforcements of over 3,000 men were rushed to the island on “the British Expedition”, early in Hadrian’s reign. The emperor himself visited the island in AD 122, in order to “correct many faults”, bringing with him a new legion, the Sixth.

The fact that they took up residence in the legionary fortress of York suggests that the “great losses” of personnel, alluded to by Fronto, had occurred within the ranks of the Ninth.

It would seem that Sutcliff was right after all.

It was the Ninth, the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that had borne the brunt of the uprising, ending their days fighting insurgents in the turmoil of early 2nd Century Britain.

The loss of such an elite military unit had an unexpected twist which reverberates to the present day. When the emperor Hadrian visited Britain at the head of a major troop surge, he realised that there was only one way to ensure stability in the island – he needed to build a wall.

Hadrian’s Wall was designed to keep invaders out of Roman territory as well as ensuring that potential insurgents within the province had no hope of receiving support from their allies to the north. From this point, cultures on either side of the great divide developed at different rates and in very different ways.

The ultimate legacy of the Ninth was the creation of a permanent border, forever dividing Britain. The origins of what were to become the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland may be traced to the loss of this unluckiest of Roman legions.

From BBC News.

Contemporary Art Museum of Casoria requests asylum in Germany

From Spiegel:

After years of mafia threats and what he sees as official indifference, the director of a contemporary art museum near Naples has had enough. In a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he has requested asylum for his museum — and says his entire staff is prepared to move to Berlin if she agrees.

Like many in and near Naples, Antonio Manfredi, the director of the Contemporary Art Museum of Casoria (CAM), lives in fear. Threatening phone calls, vandals and not-so-subtle warnings — the local mafia organization, the Camorra, has left little doubt that he is on their radar. What truly frightens him, though, is just how horribly Italy treats its artistic and cultural treasures.

And now, he has decided to call wider attention to his plight. At the beginning of this month, he mailed an official letter to Angela Merkel’s Chancellery in Berlin requesting asylum for his entire museum. The letter was sent in both Italian and German, and copies were forwarded to the German Embassy in Rome, as well.

“If the Italian government isn’t capable of taking care of its cultural treasures, then let another country do it,” Manfredi told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “This is a warning scream from Italian art to the world.”

The stunt seems to have had an effect. Since the letter went out on Feb. 1, a number of Italian newspapers have published stories about his letter and foreign news media have likewise begun to take an interest. Locals, Manfredi says, have been stopping by the museum to express solidarity.

‘Very, Very Mad’

Ominously, however, Manfredi has yet to hear anything from local politicians. “The mayor,” he says, “is very, very mad at me.”

That, though, was perhaps to be expected. Manfredi, now 50, founded his museum in 2005 with much of its funding coming from the municipality. Within three months, however, public backing dried up and those officials who approved the grant had been replaced.

Having grown up in Casoria himself, Manfredi immediately suspected that the mafia was behind the funding cut. Indeed, in October of that same year, the Casoria city council was dissolved for the second time in six years on suspicion that it had been infiltrated by the Camorra.

Manfredi, however, resolved to go on. “I wanted to continue,” he said. “But I realized that no town, no region and no state would help me.”

Since then, with the help of local donors and volunteers, the museum has collected roughly 1,000 pieces of contemporary art from around the world, including photographs, sculptures, video installations and paintings. It is also used as a space for performance pieces. “People usually tell me that the space seems very Berlin,” he says.

There is, however, a decisive difference. The exhibitions at the museum deal with all manner of relevant cultural issues — from paedophilia to urban decay. In addition, though, the presence of the mafia in daily life is far from taboo. After six immigrants from West Africa were shot down in Naples — allegedly by the Camorra — in September 2008, for example, the museum hosted “AfriCAM,” an exhibition on immigration. There has also been “CAMorra,” a 2008 show on the local mafia.

A Black Doll

Shortly afterwards, the vandalism and telephone threats started. Gates and doors at the museum showed signs of break-in attempts and security cameras were stolen. And then there was the black doll someone laid outside the museum’s front gate following the AfriCAM exhibit.

“The mafia doesn’t need to say outright ‘We are going to kill you!'” Manfredi explains. “They are very subtle. You might receive a message saying you should give some thought to hiring a private security company. If you live here, you know that’s a strong threat.”

Manfredi turned immediately to the police when the threats started, but he says they did nothing. And the warnings haven’t stopped.

In his letter to Merkel, Manfredi wrote: “I am sending you a request that I know probably sounds absurd, but that just goes to show the immense difficulties one faces in trying to make culture in my country.” Manfredi explains his museum’s situation and asks Merkel to adopt the collection. “In the name of culture and art, I hereby ask you to grant our request. I am prepared to move the entire collection to a space in Germany and to run (the museum) there together with my staff.”

Manfredi said he chose Germany as the recipient of his cry for help since it has avoided the drastic cuts in cultural funding seen recently in several other countries around Europe.

Still, his request is not likely to be granted. On Monday, a Chancellery spokeswoman told SPIEGEL ONLINE that they would not be commenting on Manfredi’s letter as they viewed it more as a public protest than as a genuine asylum request meriting further consideration.

‘The Whole Point Is to Not Be Afraid’

Manfredi himself allows that the move was in part meant for a domestic audience. And he is no stranger to high-profile appeals. After the collapse of a house in the ancient city of Pompeii late last year — which he blames on official corruption and indifference — he sent a letter to several government officials and authorities asking for more support for Italy’s cultural sites.

He got a response from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano who told him “to have courage.” That, though, says Manfredi, is not enough.

“Another purpose of my letter (to Merkel) is to open the eyes of Italians,” he says, “to ask them how they can let Italy — home to 70-80 percent of the world’s cultural sites — allow its art to be destroyed.”

Whatever the outcome of his appeal to Berlin might be, Manfredi vows to continue offering his museum as a showroom for the works of young, local artists whose works deal with their mafia-saturated world.

“Not all of them are afraid,” Manfredi says in praise of those artists who continue their work in the face of the threats. “The whole point is to not be afraid. Otherwise you should just go and shut yourself into your house for the rest of your life. The majority of people here want change — and these artists are their voice.”

From Spiegel.

The mystery of bog bodies

From USAtoday:

Scholars have long tried to make sense out of one of the oddities of the archaeological world —bodies pulled from ignominious burials in cold water bogs everywhere from Ireland to Russia.

Hundreds of these bog bodies have been found over the past two centuries. But who were they and why were they dispatched to the great beyond in mucky swamps? The theories range from executed deserters, to witches to everyday people.

The Irish Countess of Moira back in 1783 launched scholarly explorations by suggesting that bog bodies were victims of Druid ceremonies. Others, citing the ancient Roman writerTacitus, quickly saw them most likely as executed deserters. Arguments over individual finds have continued ever since the first look that year by the Countess at the Northern Ireland “Drumkeeragh” bog body, a woman dressed in wool clothes.

“Unfortunately the focus has been almost exclusively on the most spectacular finds, the mummified bodies,” says archaeologist Moten Ravn of Denmark’s Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, writing in the current Acta Archaeologica journal. Rather than arguing from just one body, Ravn suggests a survey of all the bodies might offer better clues to how they ended up buried in bogs.

What is a bog and how does it preserve anything? Cold-weather swamps, basically, where mosses turn waters brown. Roughly 560 bog bodies have turned up in Denmark alone, Ravn notes, usually discovered when farmers try to turn wetlands into farmland. His survey focuses on 145 bog bodies dating to the early Iron and late Bronze Age, roughly 500 BC to 100 BC, the pre-Roman era in northern Europe.

Acids found in bog waters have mummified some of the bodies, or more accurately tanned them into leather. Mosses release chemicals that leach calcium from the bodies, “which means that the bones of the bog bodies take on the consistency of rubber,” Ravn writes. Other bogs rich in lime have preserved other bodies only as bones.

Scholars have raced up and down the human pecking order in ascribing identities to the bodies. The historian Niels Petersen in 1835 decided that the “Haraldskaer” woman’s body found at the site of a copper factory belonged to the Norwegian Queen Gunhilde, drowned by King Harald Blatund (Bluetooth) in the Ninth Century. By 1907, archaeologist Johanna Mestorf became convinced they were all executed criminals, noting many of the bodies were bound and naked.

Shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Nazi archaeologists dominated bog body research starting in the 1930’s until the end of the Third Reich, Ravn notes, “interested in proving that the so-called Nordic race were direct descendants of the proto-Germanic race,” dating back to the Bronze Age.

All of these ideas have problems, starting with Queen Gunhilde, who was unlikely to have been buried in leather scraps, as she was found. Also a 2004 Journal of Archaeological Science study notes that carbon dating finds the “Haraldskaer” bog body was actually 2,500 years old, not in King Bluetooth’s reign.

As for executed criminals, Ravn notes there are only 21 Danish cases where the bodies have demonstrably been restrained, which, “may be a general protection against ghosts and not something reserved for criminals,” he writes. About 34% of the Bronze and Iron Age bodies in his sample are clothed, and clothing may not endure in bogs as well as flesh does, explaining its absence. A 2009 study, also in the Journal of Archaeological Science led by Ulla Mannering of the University of Copenhagen, reports 44 instances of bog bodies found with clothes in Denmark, most dating to the Roman era.

The Nazi theory is just crackers, of course, with even their own archaeologists pointing out bog bodies turned up in Ireland and elsewhere, even as far south as Crete, far outside any “proto-Germanic” home.

Instead, “most archaeologists today support the sacrifice theory,” Ravn writes. Proposed in the 1950’s, the basic idea is that bog bodies were mostly offerings to the Nordic gods Odin or Nerthus (“Mother Earth”), with the rest either murder or accident victims. People were mostly cremated in the era, a point which suggests a bog burial must have been a special event.

An alternative is the idea proposed in 2002 by historian Allen Lund that the bog bodies belonged to witches. Ancient people knew about the preserving nature of bogs and sought to suspend their supernatural foes in a state between life and death to forestall being haunted by them.

Ravn proposes a new theory to explain some of the bog bodies — maybe they were just people who died of natural causes and were sent to their burial in the bogs by their relatives. There is nothing special about the range of 145 people in his survey, men, women, young and old. Some were clearly placed in excavated holes lined with bark and cotton, buried with glass beads or gold jewelry in their mouths, a Roman custom. In Celtic myths, bogs and lakes were places of healing, Ravn suggests. “Is it possible that there was a wish to pass on these healing characteristics of the bog to a person who died a natural death so that the deceased could arrive healthy in the realm of the dead,” he asks.

Overall, bog bodies are “not so easy to explain,” Ravn says. The oldest one, the Koelbjerg woman, dates to 10,000 years ago. Others date to modern times, such as Johann Spieker, a hawker (person who used trained falcons to hunt), who died in 1828. “The reason that people were given their final resting place in the bog was not because of any one single tradition or one single ritual,” Ravn concludes. “Some were due to accidents and others to murder. Some may have been sacrificed and others may have died of natural causes and were buried in the bog.”

From USAtoday.

 

The Black Death came from China

From NYTimes:

The great waves of plague that twice devastated Europe and changed the course of history had their origins in China, a team of medical geneticists reported Sunday, as did a third plague outbreak that struck less harmfully in the 19th century.

And in separate research, a team of biologists reported conclusively this month that the causative agent of the most deadly plague, the Black Death, was the bacterium known as Yersinia pestis. This agent had always been the favored cause, but a vigorous minority of biologists and historians have argued the Black Death differed from modern cases of plague studied in India, and therefore must have had a different cause.

 

Triumph of death by Peter Breughel

The Black Death began in Europe in 1347 and carried off an estimated 30 percent or more of the population of Europe. For centuries the epidemic continued to strike every 10 years or so, its last major outbreak being the Great Plague of London from 1665 to 1666. The disease is spread by rats and transmitted to people by fleas or, in some cases, directly by breathing.

One team of biologists, led by Barbara Bramanti of the Institut Pasteur in Paris and Stephanie Haensch of Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, analyzed ancient DNA and proteins from plague pits, the mass burial grounds across Europe in which the dead were interred. Writing in the journal PLoS Pathogens this month, they say their findings put beyond doubt that the Black Death was brought about by Yersinia pestis.

Dr. Bramanti’s team was able to distinguish two strains of the Black Death plague bacterium, which differ both from each other and from the three principal strains in the world today. They infer that medieval Europe must have been invaded by two different sources of Yersinia pestis. One strain reached the port of Marseilles on France’s southern coast in 1347, spread rapidly across France and by 1349 had reached Hereford, a busy English market town and pilgrimage center near the Welsh border.

 

Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut (1493)

The strain of bacterium analyzed from the bones and teeth of a Hereford plague pit dug in 1349 is identical to that from a plague pit of 1348 in southern France, suggesting a direct route of travel. But a plague pit in the Dutch town of Bergen op Zoom has bacteria of a different strain, which the researchers infer arrived from Norway.

The Black Death is the middle of three great waves of plague that have hit in historical times. The first appeared in the 6th century during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, reaching his capital, Constantinople, on grain ships from Egypt. The Justinian plague, as historians call it, is thought to have killed perhaps half the population of Europe and to have eased the Arab takeover of Byzantine provinces in the Near East and Africa.

The third great wave of plague began in China’s Yunnan province in 1894, emerged in Hong Kong and then spread via shipping routes throughout the world. It reached the United States through a plague ship from Hong Kong that docked at Hawaii, where plague broke out in December 1899, and then San Francisco, whose plague epidemic began in March 1900.

The three plague waves have now been tied together in common family tree by a team of medical geneticists led by Mark Achtman of University College Cork in Ireland. By looking at genetic variations in living strains of Yersinia pestis, Dr. Achtman’s team has reconstructed a family tree of the bacterium. By counting the number of genetic changes, which clock up at a generally steady rate, they have dated the branch points of the tree, which enables the major branches to be correlated with historical events.

In the issue of Nature Genetics published online Sunday, they conclude that all three of the great waves of plague originated from China, where the root of their tree is situated. Plague would have reached Europe across the Silk Road, they say. An epidemic of plague that reached East Africa was probably spread by the voyages of the Chinese admiral Zheng He who led a fleet of 300 ships to Africa in 1409.

“What’s exciting is that we are able to reconstruct the historical routes of bacterial disease over centuries,” Dr. Achtman said.

Lester K. Little, an expert on the Justinian plague at Smith College, said in an interview from Bergamo, Italy, that the epidemic was first reported by the Byzantine historian Procopius in 541 A.D. from the ancient port of Pelusium, near Suez in Egypt. Historians had assumed it arrived there from the Red Sea or Africa, but the Chinese origin now suggested by the geneticists is possible, Dr. Little said.

The geneticists’ work is “immensely impressive,” Dr. Little said, and adds a third leg to the studies of plague by historians and by archaeologists.

The likely origin of the plague in China has nothing to do with its people or crowded cities, Dr. Achtman said. The bacterium has no interest in people, whom it slaughters by accident. Its natural hosts are various species of rodent such as marmots and voles, which are found throughout China.

From NYTimes.

Seville World Heritage Site in danger?

From Telegraph:

The city has approved plans for a controversial tower designed by Cesar Pelli, the Argentine architect, despite objections from UN culture chiefs who fear the new construction will have a detrimental effect on the city’s historic centre.

Seville secured a place on the World Heritage list in 1987 for its Cathedral, Alcazar and the Archivo de Indias, a monumental complex dating from between the 13th and 16th centuries.

The complex includes the Giralda minaret, which at 320ft was at one time the world’s tallest tower in the world and the vast gothic cathedral containing the tomb of Christopher Columbus.

But the skyline is threatened with the construction of the new headquarters for savings bank Cajasol less than a mile away on the opposite bank of the Guadalquivir river.

Work began at the site early this year and is scheduled for completion by end of 2011 after planning chiefs ignored a request by Unesco to delay construction until a thorough impact report could be completed.

The city is likely to be put on the World Heritage site endangered list when the organisation’s committee meets in Brasilia next month and could be removed all together if the proposal for the tower is not modified.

“We are not very optimistic. Work has not stopped. There has been no change,” said Victor Fernandez Salinas, of ICOMOS-Spain, the advisory arm of Unesco in Spain, which visited Seville this week.

“A realistic scenario would be for Seville to enter the list of endangered World Heritage Sites after the Brasilia meeting. And in the worst of cases, Seville could be kicked out,” he warned.

It would be only the second time that a city has lost its prized status since the World Heritage list was created in 1972. Last year the German city of Dresden was taken off the list after constructing a bridge over the river Elbe that ruined its beautifully conserved river landscape.

From Telegraph