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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

An Ice Core Reveals How Profoundly The Black Death Changed Medieval Society

In the year of the Lord 1347, the Black Death arrived in Europe. Introduced by merchants coming from Asia, the plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, spread quickly. Following trading routes, in just six years this incurable disease killed 25 million people, one-third of the population on the continent. Entire villages were wiped out, some cities lost 80% of their citizens. The plague was followed by famine. Thomas Basinus (1412-1491), bishop of Èvreux and later historian, notes that ‘many peasants fled or died so that many fields remained uncultivated or there was nobody left to care.’ In the cities, overpopulation and poor hygiene helped to spread the plague, rivers were used to dispose of the many corpses, contaminating the water. Riots of desperate people were common, like in 1323 in Flanders and in 1358 in France. Many believed, as one witness testified, that the end of the world had arrived.

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The Triumph of Death is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted c. 1562 it was inspired by the waves of the Black Death plaguing the 14th century.

The dramatically reduced population had, however, a surprisingly beneficial effect on the environment. The pollution of the air dropped to a historic low.

Analyzing a 236 feet long ice core recovered from a glacier in the Swiss-Italian Alps, a team of scientists from Harvard University was able to reconstruct the concentration of lead in the air over Europe for the last 2,000 years. The research with the title ‘Next-generation ice core technology reveals true minimum natural levels of lead (Pb) in the atmosphere: Insights from the Black Death,’ was published in the open access journal GeoHealth.

Atmospheric circulation transported the lead from the lowlands into the Alps, where it was washed out from the atmosphere by rain and snow. The snow, accumulating mostly during winter, partially melts and changes over the summer into ice, forming single layers, as found in a glacier. By analyzing the concentration of elements in the single layers, it is possible to create an annual record of the atmospheric deposition. One significant spike can be found around 1349-1353 when the measured concentration of lead dropped far below the average value of 10^2 nanogram of lead per liter air. Even today, after the introduction of unleaded fuel in the 1980s, the concentration of lead in the air is still 10 times higher as in 1350.

MOREetal_2017_Lead

Reconstructed lead concentration in the last 2,000 years and most important mining districts. Image Source & Credit MORE et al. 2017. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

In medieval times, lead was used for roofing of large buildings such as cathedrals, water pipes, but especially for dishes and glazed pottery valued by the rich. The most important lead ore is galena. As galena also contains silver, it was widely mined (silver, lead, and copper were the most important metals in medieval Europa). The most productive mines were found on the British island, South Italy, the Harz mountains with Freiberg in Saxony and Kutna Hora in Bohemia. We know of contemporary records of the silver medieval monarchs received as royalties, that the mines of  Freiberg and Kutna Hora alone provided 20 tons of silver and 100 tons of lead per year. To get this amount,  it was necessary to mine and process an almost 2,000 times larger quantity of rocks and ore. The Black Death impacted mining in two ways. The miners and workers died in great number, and many mines were abandoned. As the population died, including the rich people, the demand for lead also dropped.

The Black Death was so deadly, mining for lead virtually stopped and no lead dust, coming from both mining as smelting, was dispersed into the environment. As the atmosphere became cleaner, the concentration of lead deposited in the glaciers of the Alps dropped.

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Entrance to a medieval mine in the Alps, dated around 1530.

The Black Death had a disastrous impact and yet helped to create modern Europe. Plagued previously by overpopulation and poverty, Europe could reinvent itself after the Black Death made the old political system obsolete. Many peasants at the time were virtually slaves, owned by the rich landlords. As the landlords were gone, many people were free to choose where and when to settle. The surviving landlords, in desperate need of somebody to take care of their properties,  agreed to lower the taxes and more privileges were granted to farmers. Wages everywhere increased, as healthy workers were rare, and the land became cheaper. Many previously poor people managed to achieve some wealth. Authorities even tried to forbid the use of fur in clothing, a privilege reserved only to the aristocracy in former times, but now common. Political and social independence was now possible and a new class rose from the ashes of the old society — the free citizen. A new human being for a new epoch, as the Renaissance was later seen by historians. However, even after 1353, the Black Death didn’t completely disappear. Almost once in a decade, a smaller outbreak was reported, but improved hygiene in the cities, quarantine procedures, and an acquired genetic immunity of the survivors reduced the risk of infection significantly.

This societal development can also be seen in the studied ice core. Just some years after the plague of 1347-1353, the concentration of lead significantly increased, approaching values seen before the Black Death. The European mining industry experienced a boom in the 15th and 16th century, testified also by many active mines found now also in the Alps. Only recently the concentration of lead started to drop again, in response to efforts to ban this toxic element from daily use and improved environmental regulations. However, it is still an important metal, mostly used for batteries in the automobile industry.

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New Archaeological discovery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Archaeologists have discovered one of Britain’s oldest churches.

The find – on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast – is of great historical importance because the newly discovered ancient church may originally have been built in or shortly after the mid 7th century AD as part of the monastic spiritual epicentre from which much of northern and central England was eventually Christianised.

The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

lindisfarne-early-church

The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

It’s also important because it is likely to have been a key site at the spiritual heart of the early 8th-century monastic community that made Britain’s most famous early medieval illuminated manuscript – the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The evidence suggesting that this could be the site of one of Holy Island’s original early Anglo-Saxon period churches – perhaps even one built by the founder of Lindisfarne, St Aidan – is complex but persuasive.

hsr_nec_200617church_1

The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

aidan_of_lindisfarne_-_geograph-org-uk_-_10930601

It can be potentially associated with Aidan because it’s believed that changes in English church layout tradition after the mid 7thcentury meant that altars were no longer to be located up against the east wall of the church, but several metres further west.

Interestingly, the building was constructed of gleaming white sandstone that would have reflected sunlight particularly well, giving the impression that it was quite literally radiating the purest white light. The gleaming structure perched on its 20-metre high clifftop would have been clearly visible from the royal palace at Bamburgh as a white building surrounded by sea.

“It is one of the most important discoveries from the early medieval period that has been made in Britain over recent decades,” said Peter Ryder, an archaeologist specialising in medieval ecclesiastical buildings who has been involved in recording the masonry from the newly discovered early church.

The archaeologists have also discovered the massive foundations of what appears to have been a large signalling tower on the same promontory – presumably to enable simple messages to be sent directly to the king’s palace at Bamburgh, some four miles across the sea to the south.

Bamburgh castle

The eight metre square tower (with walls 2.5 metres thick) would probably have been up to 12 metres high – and would also have been used to communicate with monks living on the Farne Islands, seven miles away. It’s known from ancient accounts that a tower on that promontory was used, for instance, to receive a beacon signal from those monks when St Cuthbert (subsequently regarded as the patron saint of northern England) died there in AD 687.

The buried remains of the newly discovered early church, currently being excavated by the archaeologists, show that the building was at least partially made of stone.

However, it is almost certain that the initial mid-7th century church or (churches) on Lindisfarne were originally constructed purely of timber. We also know that the Lindisfarne monks viewed their earliest timber churches with such reverence that, in the 7th or early 8th century, they encased one in pure lead to preserve it – and later (in the 9th century) deconstructed it or another timber church and took it to the mainland to prevent it being destroyed by the Vikings.

Lindisfarne Priory

It is, therefore, conceivable that the newly discovered stone church on the Lindisfarne clifftop was built in the mid or late 7thcentury as a protective structure around what may have been St Aidan’s original timber church. If that is not correct, then it could be a later Anglo-Saxon stone rebuild of that church, although, on balance of probabilities, the primitive nature of the masonry would perhaps argue against that. Alternatively, it could be that a totally new stone church was built on the promontory in perhaps the early or mid-8th century.

Ultimately, only further excavation and scientific testing may solve the conundrum.

The newly discovered foundations and masonry fragments of the church on the wind-blown Lindisfarne clifftop are by far the oldest Anglo-Saxon structural remains found on the island.

Source.

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