Museum Asks For Your Help Reassembling Medieval Cross

medieval
Replica of the stone, image courtesy WIkimedia Commons

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is asking for your help in reassembling an early medieval carved stone.

The Hilton of Cadboll Stone was carved in Scotland around 800 AD by the Picts, a mysterious people who have left little in the way of a written record but created some incredible art. The stone was carved shortly after the Picts converted to Christianity and includes one of Scotland’s earliest representations of Jesus.

This particular stone has had a rough time in the past 1200 years. At some unrecorded date it was snapped off from its base, then later defaced by Protestant reformers. In 1676, the Christian cross on one side of the stone was chipped off and replaced with an inscription commemorating a local man, Alexander Duff, and his three wives.

While one side is still impressive, as you can see here, it seemed the rest of the stone had been defaced beyond all hope of restoration until a recent excavation at the original site uncovered the stones’ base.Unfortunately it’s smashed into some 3,000 pieces, and that’s where you come in. The museum has put every piece through a 3D scanner and is launching a website where you can try your hand at reassembling it.

The project is part of the museum’s upcoming exhibition Creative Spirit Revealing Early Medieval Scotland, which will open October 25. It focuses on the Early Medieval period (around 300-900 AD), an time between Scottish and Viking influence and marking the arrival of Christianity and emerging powerful elites. The online reassembly will begin on that date at the special website Pictish Puzzle.

The museum is especially calling for gamers to help out because, they say, gamers are better at manipulating 3D images and finding patterns.

Might be a fun break from killing zombies.

Archaeologists Digging At Lincoln Castle Uncover Early Christian Community

Lincolnshire County Council

Archaeologists excavating at Lincoln Castle have discovered the remains of an early Christian community, according to a Lincolnshire County Council press release.

The team, which was digging inside the castle to clear the way for an elevator shaft, found the remains of a church that dates back at least 1,000 years. Inside a sealed niche in the wall they found human bones. They had been wrapped in finely woven cloth and while the cloth has long since disappeared, it left its impression on the surrounding mortar. Excavators theorize that these may be the remains of a holy person, as it was common to put relics in church walls and altars in order to make them holy.

An even older find included several skeletons and a stone sarcophagus. The archaeological team is planning to put an endoscopic camera into the coffin to see what’s inside without disturbing it.

%Gallery-188672%Both the cemetery and church date to the Anglo-Saxon period, when England was a patchwork of different kingdoms before the Norman conquest. Lincoln had been a walled Roman town. The Romans left Britain in the early fifth century and were soon replaced by Anglo-Saxons coming from Denmark and northern Germany. They took up residence in Lincoln and many other Roman towns.

The present castle was built by the Normans in 1068 on the foundations of a Roman fort. William the Conqueror, after defeating the English King Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066, built this castle to control the important town of Lincoln and its surrounding area. While the castle has been modified over the centuries, it’s still one of the best-preserved Norman castles anywhere.

The typical Norman castle has a tower on an artificial mound at the center and with a wall encircling it. Lincoln Castle has two mounds, each with its own fortification and a long wall encircling them both. This tough fortification was besieged twice. The second time, in 1216, was during the Baron’s War, which led King John into making concessions to the nobility in the form of the famous Magna Carta. One of the original copies is on display here.

Back in 2010, an earlier excavation uncovered a secret tunnel at Lincoln castle. Excavations continue at in the castle grounds.

If you visit the castle, also check nearby Lincoln Cathedral, a beautiful Gothic building from the 11th century.

Early Christian art on display at the Onassis Cultural Center, NYC

early Christian art, David plate
It’s often called the Dark Ages, a time when barbarian hordes overran Rome and that great civilization’s art, culture, and learning disappeared. A time when there were no great achievements.

It’s a misnomer.

Rome did not fall in the fifth century with the usurpation of the last emperor in Rome in 476. To the east, at the new capital of Constantinople, modern Istanbul, the Eastern Roman Empire was starting a new renaissance in art and administration that would become known as Byzantium.

An exhibition in New York City’s Onassis Cultural Center explores the place of early Christianity in these often misunderstood years. Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd to 7th Century AD opened yesterday and runs until May 14, 2012.

The exhibition brings together more than 170 objects from collections in Greece, Cyprus, and the US. There are a wide range of objects including mosaics, paintings, sculptures, architectural elements, inscriptions, coins, liturgical objects, jewelry, and domestic items. The timeline spans the last years of paganism and the rise of Christianity as a tolerated and eventually the official religion.

Early Christian art took on many of the forms and styles of earlier Roman art, as you can see from this 7th century silver plate, shown here in a Wikimedia Commons image. This is one of the nine so-called David Plates, commissioned by the Emperor Heraklios (ruled 610-641), whose victory over the Persians was compared to David’s defeat of Goliath. In this plate David is being presented to Saul (1 Samuel 17:32–34). The figures are dressed like Roman aristocracy.

The exhibition looks at many facets of late Antiquity including the interaction of paganism and Christianity, daily life, the importance of cities, and funerary art.

Of course the “barbarians” had art of their own. While that’s beyond the scope of this exhibition, many museums have collections of the Germanic tribes’ unique styles of jewelry, glasswork, and carving. The British Museum has an especially good collection.

The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors

Spain, Visigoth, Visigoths, Visigothic, MéridaWhen most people think of the fall of the Roman Empire, they think of hordes of howling barbarians swarming over the frontier and laying waste to civilization. That’s only partially true. In reality, many tribes were invited, and even those that weren’t came with their families not just to conquer, but to settle. This is why historians prefer the term “Migration Period”. And although these tribes conquered, the Romans ended up changing them more than they changed the Romans.

Take the gravestone pictured here, for instance. The product of “barbarians” who had taken Spain, it has Christian symbolism and is written in Latin. It reads, “Cantonus, servant of God, lived 87 years. He rested in peace on 22 December 517 AD.”

The Visigoths spread over much of the western Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Their attacks prompted the emperor Honorius to withdraw his legions from Britain so he could get reinforcements, but this didn’t stop the Visigoths from sacking Rome itself in 410 AD. Like other Germanic tribes, they came to settle, and eventually moved as far as southern France and Spain. There they took over the government but left the society pretty much intact. Roman bureaucrats still ran day-to-day affairs. The Visigoths were already Christian like most Romans by this time, and since they lacked a written language they started using Latin.

Their kingdom lasted from 475 to 711, when they were defeated by the Umayyid Muslims. That’s a long time, but the Visigoths have basically become the Invisigoths, a forgotten people sandwiched in time between the Romans and the Moors. Why? Because they had little effect on the people they ruled. The Iberian Romans continued pretty much as they were, developing from the crumbling Classical era into the Early Middle Ages. These Ibero-Romans vastly outnumbered their Visigothic rulers. The only Visigothic word to make it into Spanish is verdugo, which means “executioner”.

If you look hard enough, you can still see traces of the Visigoths. Four of their churches still stand, two in Spain and two in Portugal. One of the best is San Pedro de la Nave near Campillo, Spain. Two shots of this church are in the gallery. Bits of other buildings have been incorporated into later structures. In Mérida, a Moorish fortress called the Alcazaba uses a bunch of pillars taken from a Visigothic hospital. They’re shown in the gallery too. The Visigoths had a distinct artistic style of carvings in low relief, showing plants or animals or people in Biblical or battle scenes. The Visigothic Museum in Mérida has an excellent collection of these.

The Germanic tribes were also good at making jewelry, and the Visigoths were no exception. They liked huge, intricately carved pins called fibulae to hold their cloaks, and wore bejeweled belt buckles big enough to make any Texan proud. Several of their chunky gold crowns also survive, with the names of their kings spelled out in gold letters hanging like a fringe around the edge.

So when visiting Spain’s many museums and historic sights, keep an eye out for remnants of Spain’s underrated rulers!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The wine and cuisine of Extremadura!

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More Roman heritage from Mérida, Spain

Roman, Spain, MéridaIn the Extremaduran city of Mérida, it feels like at any moment you’re going to turn a corner and meet an ancient Roman. Sometimes that almost happens.

This fellow was at the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, a world-class museum featuring Roman statues, mosaics, and other artifacts. Built by the famous architect Rafael Moneo Vallés, it looks like an old Roman basilica, with lofty arches, wide corridors, and lots of natural light. This allows each artifact to have plenty of space so it can be viewed from all angles. My five-year-old son loved this place. With the crowds dispersed in such a large area, he didn’t have to keep close to my side all the time. He could wander at will (within my sight, of course) and examine the chariot races on the mosaics all by himself. He also liked the basement, which included a Roman road and several crypts.

While the museum is one of the best I’ve seen, the whole city is actually a museum. Behind a cafe I saw spare chairs stacked under a Roman arch. The local church incorporates parts of a temple to Mars. The main pedestrian bridge across the Rio Guadiana, dating to about 25 BC, is the longest surviving Roman bridge in the world.

Last time I talked about the Roman theater and amphitheater at Mérida. These are the two most popular sights in town, but perhaps more impressive is the Casa del Mitreo. This Roman mansion is located near the subterranean temple of Mithras, a mystery religion that was the main competitor with Christianity for the hearts and minds of the Romans in the late Empire. It’s not clear if the house was actually associated with the temple, but a beautiful, complex mosaic on the library floor suggests it was. It shows the divine principles of sky, earth, and sea in a vast interconnected group. These aren’t gods, but ideas, such as Copiae, the riches of the sea; Aestas, the summer; and Chaos. The whole mansion has been excavated and protected under a modern roof, so you can stroll around on a modern walkway and look down the bedrooms, patios, and wall paintings. My wife voted this the best attraction in town. Near the house is a rather spooky Roman graveyard.

%Gallery-112140% On the edge of town you can see one of the best preserved Roman hippodromes in the world. Chariot races were even more popular than gladiator fights or plays. Like the theater this was an institution that the early Christians disapproved of. But like the Mérida theater, it got a major face lift courtesy of the early Christian emperors in the years 337-340 AD. It took some time for the Christians to enforce their strict morality on the Roman populace. Walking along the 440 meter (481 yard) long racetrack you can easily imagine cheering crowds and crashing chariots. Thirty thousand people could be seated here. Nearby are the remains of one of Mérida’s two aqueducts.

Mérida protected the crossing of the Guadiana river, and so even after the Roman Empire crumbled it was an important spot. The Visigoths, a Germanic tribe, built an imposing city wall and fortress here. Little of that period remains, but the next rulers of Mérida, the Moors, built a sprawling fortress called the Alcazaba next to the bridge. When we visited we had the place pretty much to ourselves. My son got to walk the ramparts and look out over the river, imagining what it would have been like to live in those times. He especially liked exploring the dark tunnels under the main tower, which lead to a cistern that provided the soldiers with water. The upper story of this same tower was once a mosque.

“Fun for the whole family” is a horrible travel writing cliché, but it does apply to Mérida! While the modern town isn’t much to look at, it’s full of ancient surprises. The food and wine are great too. More on that in another post.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors!