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The Kings of Kent

The surprising discovery of an Anglo-Saxon feasting hall in the village of Lyminge is offering a new view of the lives of these pagan kings

By JASON URBANUS

Monday, May 20, 2013

aerial-lyminge-excavation

 

Fifth-century Britain was a tumultuous place, wracked by violence, upheaval, and uncertainty. The Roman Empire was crumbling throughout western Europe as waves of barbarian invaders overran its borders. By A.D. 410, groups of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began crossing the North Sea from Germany and southern Scandinavia to claim land in Britain that had been abandoned by the Roman army. These tribes succeeded Rome as the dominant power in central and southern Britain, marking the beginning of what we now call the Anglo-Saxon Age, which would last for more than 600 years.

 

While the story of this period is known to us in broad strokes, in archaeological terms, there remains much to uncover. The early Anglo-Saxon period is a time whose events are often shrouded in fantasy. This fantastical view can be traced to later, Christian writers who described the pagan world of the fifth and sixth centuries as being inhabited by wizards, warriors, demons, and dragons. Legendary tales, passed down, were often the subject of later Old English works of poetry. Perhaps the most famous of all is the epic work Beowulf, whose eponymous hero battles monsters and fire-breathing dragons. But some of the details of early Anglo-Saxon life that have been gleaned piecemeal from texts are now being confirmed by archaeology. Such is the case with the recent surprising discovery of a Saxon royal feasting hall.

 

For the last six years the Lyminge Archaeological Project has investigated the modern village of Lyminge, Kent, located a short distance from the famous white cliffs of Dover. Researchers from both the University of Reading and the Kent Archaeological Society are documenting Lyminge’s transition from a pagan royal “vill” into a significant Christian monastic center. The settlement encompasses both the pre-Christian and later Christian Anglo-Saxon periods and is proving valuable in understanding the development of early English communities. According to Alexandra Knox, archaeologist and Lyminge Archaeological Project research assistant, the work there is supplying a key piece of the puzzle. “The history of the Christian conversion in Kent,” Knox says, “the historically earliest kingdom to be converted in the Anglo-Saxon period, is integral to our understanding of the creation of medieval and, indeed, modern England.”

 

The Christian Anglo-Saxon community in Lyminge founded an important “double” monastery—home to both monks and nuns—dating from the seventh to ninth century. The existence of this monastery has been known from at least the middle of the nineteenth century, when Canon Jenkins, a local vicar and amateur archaeologist, discovered the remains of the ancient monastic complex. But apart from these Christian ruins, little was known about Lyminge’s earlier history.

Haunt of the Resurrection Men

A forgotten graveyard, the dawn of modern medicine, and the hard life in 19th-century London

By KATE RAVILIOUS

Monday, April 08, 2013

Paul Gustave Dore engraving

 

Working amid the confusion of the East India Docks in London in the early 1800s was perilous trade. In the holds of rolling ships, men could be crushed by falling barrels and chests. On deck, grappling hooks swung wildly, and carelessly loaded containers burst, sometimes showering longshoremen with toxic substances such as iodine, phosphorous, asbestos, and lead. Losing one’s footing was often a death sentence—crushed between ship and dock or drowned in the filthy Thames.

 

There was no shortage of men willing to take these risks. The Industrial Revolution in Britain was booming and immigrants flooded in from Ireland and the continent in search of work. Many ended up on the docks or in the factories of London’s East End. Wages were low and homes scarce—four of every five families lived in filthy single rooms. Open sewers ran down the streets and the air was clogged with soot.

 

Industrialization took its toll on the community’s health. Their only bulwark against frequent disease outbreaks and horrific injuries was the London Hospital. But among the very sick or seriously hurt, even admission to the hospital did little to improve chances of survival. Infection was rife on the wards and surgery was a brutal business. The standard treatment for a broken bone was amputation, and there were no anesthetics or antiseptics.

 

In a way, though, for such a bustling, desperate neighborhood, death often represented opportunity. Medical science was undergoing a revolution of its own, and the corpses of the recently deceased were in high demand by surgeons and medical students. Though it was illegal, there was a roaring trade in dead bodies.

 

Until now, little was known about exactly what nineteenth-century medical professionals did with those cadavers, or how far they were prepared to bend the rules to get them. The recent discovery of a long-forgotten cemetery on the grounds of the London Hospital is illuminating some of these practices and, while some of the details are not for the squeamish, they have much to tell us about the foundation upon which modern medicine is built.

On the Trail of the Mimbres

Archaeologists are tracking the disappearance of a remarkable type of pottery to rewrite the story of a culture’s decline

By JUDE ISABELLA

Monday, April 08, 2013

Mimbres-pot-geometricSince first being unearthed in New Mexico in the late nineteenth century, the striking ceramic bowls made a millennium earlier by people living in the Mimbres River Valley of the American Southwest have inspired countless counterfeiters, a clay art festival, a burglary at the University of Minnesota’s anthropology department, and even a line of railroad dinnerware.

 

While their undecorated outsides appear unremarkable in technique and form, their insides are magic, a canvas for haunting depictions of tortoises, fish, jackrabbits, and sometimes humans, as well as intricate geometric designs. The black forms on a white background create an arresting contrast.

 

For more than a century, beginning in the late tenth century A.D., thousands of these black-on-white bowls were produced, with distinctive designs more spectacular and elaborate than those of any other culture in the Southwest. “It was strikingly unique,” says Steve LeBlanc, an archaeologist at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, who has studied the pottery makers since the 1970s.The figurative painting on the bowls—sophisticated composite animals and complex scenes and stories—sets Mimbres pottery apart from that of neighboring cultures, where geometric shapes dominated. Then, in 1130, according to the archaeological record, the manufacture of the bowls stopped.

 

Mimbres-pots-rabbit-birth

 

The Mimbres lived in an area that today is nestled in New Mexico’s southwest corner, spilling over the border there with Arizona, and dipping into the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Archaeologists consider Mimbres a subset of the Mogollon culture. Mogollon is one of three major cultures of the ancient American Southwest, along with the Anasazi, also referred to as the Ancestral Pueblo, and the Hohokam. The Ancestral Pueblo are known for large, sophisticated village sites and road systems, such as Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. The Hohokam engineered complex irrigation canals, unrivaled by other pre-Columbian cultures in North America. Traced to a.d. 200, the Mogollon stretched across the mountainous region near today’s Mexican-American border, living in semiunderground dwellings. Overall, they did not farm intensively. The Mimbres, however, used irrigation methods similar to those of the Hohokam to exploit the fertile floodplains of the Mimbres River in order to produce corn, squash, beans, and other crops.

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