Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pictish symbols revealed to be a written language

A new study has discovered that Picts, a people living in Scotland during the Early Middle Ages, did have a written language made from the symbols they inscribed in stone. A British team has been able to partially decipher these symbols using used a mathematical process known as Shannon entropy which allowed them to spot the distinctive patterns characteristic of written language in the symbol stones.

"Pictish symbols revealed as a written language through application of Shannon entropy," by Rob Lee, Philip Jonathan and Pauline Ziman, has been published in Proceedings of the Royal Society: A. The authors note that "over the last century, a wide variety of ‘meanings’ for the symbols have been proposed, from pagan religious imagery to heraldic arms, but it is only recently that the question as to whether they might be a written language has been asked."

By using mathematics and statistical analysis, the team was able to determine that that it is a written language and that the symbols probably represent particular words. The authors note that the next step in the process of understanding Pictish writing will be to catalogue all the remaining stones and symbols, of which at least 250 exist.

Rob Lee also told Discovery News that the many of the symbols appear to depict things like dogs, horses, trumpets, mirrors, combs, stags, weapons, crosses and Celtic knots. "It is unclear at the moment whether the imagery, such as the knots, form any part of the communication," Lee said.

The article also notes that by "demonstrating that the Pictish symbols are writing, with the symbols probably corresponding to words, opens a unique line of further research for historians and linguists investigating the Picts and how they viewed themselves."

The Picts were a confederation of Celtic tribes living in what was later to become eastern and northern Scotland from before the Roman conquest of Britain until the 10th century, when they merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). By the 11th century the Pictish identity had merged with these other groups to form the Scottish people. Medieval historians have been researching the Picts in recent years, with many focusing on the stones and symbols they left behind.

Moreover, the Royal Society explains that by using this mathematical method, it "opens up the possibility that other ancient inscriptions could be similarly analysed, paving the way to vastly improved interpretation of many ancient languages that were previously thought undecipherable. Furthermore, the authors point out that similar techniques could be used to analyse animal noises, leading to the possibility of an enhanced understanding of animal communication."

Click here to read the article Pictish symbols revealed as a written language through application of Shannon entropy

Sources: Proceedings of the Royal Society: A, Royal Society, Discovery News

Notre Dame promotes its London Program

The University of Notre Dame is promoting its London Program as a hub of international scholarship, with much of the work taking place there related to medieval studies. As well as being a home for undergraduate students studying abroad, the London Centre, located in Trafalgar Square, will be hosting several conferences that will be of interest to medievalists.

This year, the center is launching a seminar series on global history in collaboration with the University of London’s renowned Institute for Historical Research, planning the first of three conferences sponsored by the Medieval Institute, and co-sponsoring a conference with the University of Cambridge, the University of Paris-Diderot and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on “Shakespeare and the Middle Ages.” That conference in late June—one day at the center, one at the Globe—brings scholars together to hear papers across the fields of Shakespeare and medieval studies, explains Peter Holland, McMeel Family Professor in Shakespeare Studies in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre.

Other events this year include the first annual lecture co-sponsored with Chawton House Library of British Women Writers with Anne Mellor speaking on “The Female Elegy,” a conference organized by Notre Dame faculty on “Renaissance Visions of Christian Origins,” and a conference co-sponsored with Edinburgh University Press on Virginia Woolf. Next year’s schedule includes a conference co-sponsored with Birbeck College, University of London, on “Religious Martyrdom and Terrorism” and a conference organized by Notre Dame faculty on “Religion and Literature.”

Along with regular poetry readings, concerts and book launches, the center has also in the last two years hosted a conference on “European Identities” sponsored by the Nanovic Institute, co-hosted a conference with the London-based University of the Arts on artist Meredith Monk, co-sponsored a seminar with St. John’s University on English poetry, and hosted a conference, organized by Notre Dame faculty member Dennis Doordan and linked with the Victoria & Albert Museum, on British architect Eric Gill.

“In our new global era, first-rate universities must develop and establish a vibrant global presence,” says Greg Kucich, who became director of the London undergraduate program nearly two years ago. “Notre Dame’s goal to rank among elite universities as a premier Catholic research and teaching institution involves positioning itself as a distinguished global university. The London Program plays a leading role in this mission as an outstanding center that promotes Notre Dame’s international prestige, particularly through its rapidly developing scholarly dimension.”

Kucich also launched a new symposium last year, titled the University of Notre Dame London Symposium, that brings together Notre Dame faculty with European scholars. The last two symposia have focused on “Cosmopolitanism and Religious Diversity” and “Irish London: Print, Politics and Performance in the Long Nineteenth Century.” A Notre Dame alumni-student lecture series has featured James Turk on “Gold and the Collapse of the Dollar” and Stryker McGuire on “The Crisis in International Journalism.”

Each event, Kucich says, draws another wave of interest from scholars interested in collaborating with Notre Dame, as European universities push to strengthen their international connections. Kucich also is working to raise the profile on the Notre Dame campus for the scholarly side of the London Program, which has been known for decades as a premier study-abroad program for undergraduates.

“The significant overall benefit of these combined priorities,” he says, “is to give Notre Dame—on undergraduate, graduate and faculty levels—a markedly heightened standing in the world of international academic life.”

Source: University of Notre Dame

Radio interview with Carrie Beneš and Nova Myhill

New College of Florida history professor Carrie Beneš and English professor Nova Myhill were the featured guests on WGCU radio on Wednesday, March 10. The two discussed the New College Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Studies, held on March 11-13. Beneš and Myhill were the coordinators for the conference, which has grown to be one of the largest of its kind in the southeastern United States. WGCU radio airs on FM 90.1 in Southwest Florida and is available online at

The two professors begin by talking about Medieval and Renaissance studies in general, before dealing with the conference in particular, including some of the papers they were looking forward to.

Click here to go to the Conference website.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts go up for auction at Christie's

Over £11 million of illuminated manuscripts will be sold at auction in July, including many medieval and Renaissance masterpieces. Christie's has announced that they will be holding a sale of the Arcana Collection: Exceptional Illuminated Manuscripts and Incunabula, on 7 July 2010 in London.

This private collection which has been assembled over the past three decades and which includes personal prayer books made for royalty, bishops, aristocracts and other important patrons from the 13th century to the 16th century. These include King François I of France, King Henry IV of France and Elizabeth de Bohun, great grandmother of King Henry V of England. Christie's expects that the 48 lots will fetch between £11 million and £16 million.

Margaret Ford, Head of Books and Manuscripts at Christie’s, said, “This is a truly exceptional collection which presents illuminated manuscripts and incunabula in all their glory. They are masterpieces of medieval and renaissance art, many commissioned by important patrons.

"Books of Hours are among the most personal artworks. Used for private devotion, they were also intended to reflect the wealth and status of the owner and leading artists and craftsmen were engaged in their creation. The Arcana collection offers the best examples of their type, ranging from Books of Hours to works of literature and on the natural world. The beauty of the page is often complemented by the importance of the text, exceptional, original condition, and interesting, even highly distinguished, subsequent ownership.

"It has been the aesthetic aspect of these masterpieces which has appealed in particular to this private collector and excited his curiosity to acquire and learn more about them. A successful businessman, he has also generously supported public institutions with holdings in this field.”

Highlights of the collection include:

- A Book of Hours opulently illuminated for King François I of France by the Master of François de Rohan is expected to realise £300,000 to £500,000. François I, celebrated as one of the greatest princely patrons of the Renaissance, commissioned art and architecture of the highest quality attracting to his court the leading artists of his day. Leonardo da Vinci was eminent among them and spent his final years in the king's employ. After Leonardo's death François I acquired what is probably the world's most famous painting, The Mona Lisa, from the artist's estate.

- Executed in England in the 14th century, the Hours and Psalter of Elizabeth de Bohun, Countess of Northampton and great-grandmother of King Henry V of England, are expected to realise £2,000,000 to £3,000,000. These were lent by a previous owner, William Waldorf Astor, to the important loan exhibition in New York 1883 that raised funds for a pedestal for The Statue of Liberty.

- A manuscript Bible produced in Italy in the middle of the 13th century with extensive and exquisite painted illustration. It appears to have been made for the use of a convent of Dominican friars - but the borders include diverting genre scenes and fantastical creations far from the routine religious illustrations that might be expected. The death of Theodoric Borgognoni (c.1296) is recorded in the Calendar and he may have commissioned the work: not only a Dominican friar and Bishop of Cervia he was one of the most significant and innovative surgeons of the medieval period. This Bible carries an estimate of £2,500,000 to £3,500,000.

- The first edition of Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (estimate: £250,000 to £350,000) was printed at Ulm in 1473, and is also a masterpiece of German woodcut illustration. This copy was formerly owned by W.E. Gladstone, Hawarden Castle.

For more details go to the Christie's website

Source: Christie's

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Nottingham hosts Robin Hood events and exhibition

The City of Nottingham has started to cash in on the hype for the upcoming Robin Hood movie by teaming up with Universal Films and director Ridley Scott to create an exhibition at Nottingham Castle and Sherwood Forest. Furthermore, Nottingham City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council have declared May Robin Hood Month.

The Nottingham Castle exhibition features the character costumes of Robin Hood, plus Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, Little John, King Richard I and Prince John. It also features other costumes, props, weaponry and behind the scenes assets from the movie. It provides an amazing chance to see the original props, weaponry, set pieces and costumes from the film up close.

Special events planned for May at Nottingham Castle include a Robin Hood Jousting Show, various re-enactments, and Medieval Family Fun Days.

Sherwood Forest will be displaying other memorabilia including a large wooden cart from the movie that you can sit in and watch behind the scenes footage on large screens. The existing visitor exhibition telling the story of Robin and his Sherwood home has undergone a major refurbishment and will also be open for the media to preview before being opened to the public. A special archery competition will take place on May 31st in the heart of Sherwood Forest.

This official movie exhibition has been put together especially for Nottingham Castle and the Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre by the film's set designer Sonja Klaus.

The film is expected to be one of the big blockbusters of 2010 and is a gritty modern retelling of the popular worldwide legend that is inextricably linked with Nottinghamshire. The exhibition will link in with The Castle's sizeable medieval collections and treasures.

The Sheriff of Nottingham, Cllr Leon Unczur said: "This is a really exciting time for the City. Not only Nottingham people but visitors from across the world who come to pay homage to the legends of Robin Hood and his Merry Men will be able to join in the celebrations. With a helping hand from a major Hollywood film, the spotlight is shining brightly on Nottingham and we've got a unique opportunity to tell the world about the other great things that make Nottingham the place it is.

"Nottingham Castle has a history of varied and prestigious exhibitions and we are grateful to Universal for their co-operation with this latest one. When I accepted the role of Sheriff I made a promise to do as much as I could to pull Robin Hood back into all our hearts. I feel confident that this will be Nottingham's year."

Nottinghamshire County Council Cabinet Member for Culture and Community Councillor John Cottee said: "Robin Hood is famous all around the world and it is great that the new film and this new exhibition will add to the legend and introduce a new generation to our county's most famous son. It will give us all a reason to celebrate our legendary heritage and will also attract visitors into the county which will bring real rewards to the local economy."

"It has been marvellous to work with Universal on creating this exciting new exhibition which will bring to life the romance of the silver screen and the legend of Robin Hood and all in the beautiful setting of Sherwood Forest."

Jennifer Spencer, Interim Chief Executive for Experience Nottinghamshire, the county's tourism agency said: "We've worked hard as a team to cultivate a strong working relationship with Universal which has resulted in the city and county playing host to this exhibition of national and international significance. Our efforts have been rewarded and the exhibition is already grabbing global media attention. This builds on our Robin Hood heritage and is set to drive a big increase in visitors to our city and county."

Film Director Ridley Scott says: "This new adaptation is a Robin Hood that viewers across the world have never seen before. The exhibition will give visitors the opportunity to really get up close and personal with the film and feel part of the production itself, along with understanding the importance of the surroundings we filmed it in."

For more information go to My Nottingham.

Click here to go to our page on the Robin Hood film.

Source: Nottingham City Council

Friday, March 26, 2010

Meals of The Last Supper grew bigger in the last thousand years

A new study examining artistic depictions of the Last Supper over the last thousand years has concluded that the food portions depicted in the famous scene have been getting larger throughout the centuries.

Brian Wansink, of Cornell University, and Craig Wansink, of Virginia Wesleyan College, examined 52 pieces of art that shows the Last Supper of Jesus Christ, an important event written about in the Christian gospels. The two brothers call this "perhaps the most commonly painted meal," making it their choice to see how artists portrayed the sizes of foods and plates.

Their premise was that, "if art imitates life and if food resources have become generally more available over the past millennium, we might expect the size of the food portions depicted in paintings to increase over time."

After examining the paintings, which date back roughly to the year 1000, and include many from the Middle Ages, they did find that the size of the entrées had grown by 69 percent, while plate size has increased 66 percent and bread size by about 23 percent.

They also discovered that while they were unable to tell what the main course was in nearly half of the depictions, they did find that fish or eel (18%), lamb (14%) and pork (7%) served as the main dishes in many of the scenes.

Their conclusions have been disputed by Carl Pyrdum III, a medieval scholar, who criticized the study on his blog Got Medieval. He notes that the authors only used 52 artworks of the Last Supper, which would be a small minority of those available, all of which were from the same book: Last Supper. "It's like they literally grabbed the first book on the Last Supper they saw and decided to end their research there," Pyrdum writes.

He also details various problems related to medieval art that the authors did not take into consideration, such as a lack of proportional representation. Pyrdum concludes "that comparing the size of pieces of food to holy apostolic body parts is so much nonsense, at least for the first 400 years that the study claims to discuss."

The article, "The largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium" appears in the April issue of the International Journal of Obesity.

Sources: International Journal of Obesity, Cornell University, Got Medieval

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Repair and archaeological work at Bury St. Edmunds nears completion

Important work to safeguard the boundary wall of the historic Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds, England, is nearing completion thanks to a £100,000 grant from English Heritage.

Repairs to painstakingly rebuild and underpin the precinct north wall have been going on for seven weeks largely behind the popular aviary in the Gardens and away from public gaze.

It has involved carefully dismantling the top section of the flintwork above and adjacent to the aviary as well as structural repairs to the wall within the aviary itself, all of which is believed to have originated in the 12th century with subsequent phases of repair and alteration, marking the position of the flints and then replacing them after strengthening work has been carried out.

An archaeological dig and recording exercise was undertaken by Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service. This was to inform the conservation repair programme, provide a record of the existing fabric before repair, identifying phasing in the development of the north precinct wall, and undertake the trial dig to determine below ground archaeology that allowed the wall to be successfully underpinned without disturbance to the original medieval fabric.

English Heritage Project Manager David Brown said: “Bury’s Abbey Gardens are of true historical importance to the nation and a real jewel in the crown in the modern context of a thriving Suffolk town. This work is all about maintaining the fabric of this piece of history for generations to come.”

David Gill Suffolk County Council archaeologist, said: “The project afforded an exciting opportunity to re-examine one of the best preserved and earliest of the abbey's buildings, and has greatly increased our understanding of how it once looked and functioned”

Bob Carr, consultant and ex-Suffolk County Council archaeologist, said: “The wall face behind the aviary is by far the best preserved example of early medieval fabric from such buildings; the architectural detailing of both windows and probable doorways survive and date the mass fabric. This is the best survival of Early English style surviving in the Abbey. Overall this area of fabric is assessed as being of the highest importance.”

The formal flower Gardens – seen by many as an oasis of calm in the bustling West Suffolk market town – were established in the 1830s and taken over by the borough council shortly before the First World War.

But the site’s history goes back to early medieval times with the foundation of a religious community in 633 AD. It was renamed after St Edmund, the Martyr King of East Anglia, whose remains were transferred there during the 10th century and was for centuries a place of pilgrimage. In 1214 AD the barons of England gathered at the site to swear an oath to force King John to establish a charter of liberties, which months later resulted in the Magna Carta.

The Gardens are now a major tourist attraction in Bury. As well as the formally laid-out gardens, the site includes an open play area, a sensory garden for the blind, a rose garden dedicated to the USAF airmen stationed in the area during WWII and recreational facilities.

Source: News Distribution Service

Summers were wetter in the Middle Ages than they are today

The severe epidemic of plague known as the "Black Death" caused the death of a third of the European population in the 14th century. It is probable that the climatic conditions of the time were a contributory factor towards the disaster.

"The late Middle Ages were unique from the point of view of climate," explains Dr Ulf Büntgen of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) in Birmensdorf, Switzerland. "Significantly, there were distinct phases in which summers were wetter than they are today."

What exactly took place at the time can be reconstructed today by studying the annual growth rings of old oak trees. "Annual growth rings provide us with an accurate indication of summer droughts for each individual year, dating back to late medieval times," adds Professor Dr Jan Esper of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

Together with colleagues at the universities of Bonn, Gießen, and Göttingen, Büntgen and Esser managed, with the aid of the information provided by tree growth rings, to identify for the first time the summer drought periods over extensive areas of Germany in the last 1000 years. Their results have been published in the leading specialist journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Using dendrochronology, the researchers have been able to demonstrate, for example, that a ridge beam in an old timber-framed house in the city of Kassel must have come from a tree felled in 1439. In this technique, the pattern of annual growth rings is compared with those in already dated wood samples. "We can thus determine the exact age of every beam," says Büntgen, describing the process.
Summer droughts in the last 1000 years. (Credit: Copyright Ulf Büntgen)

The ridge beam can also provide information on whether past summers in Kassel were wet or dry. "If a summer tended to be wet, the trees generally grew faster, thus resulting in wider growth rings," Esper explains. However, the information available from one beam is not enough to allow reliable conclusions about the climate in Kassel in 1439 to be reached. A large number of wood samples are required.

For their survey the researchers analyzed 953 different pieces of oak. To obtain information on the more recent past, they took wood from living trees. They also took samples from wooden construction elements of old timber-framed houses, castles, and churches, thus roughly covering the period of the last 1000 years. All construction wood samples were obtained in the north of the German state of Hesse and the south of Lower Saxony, while the living wood came from the region of the Kellerwald-Edersee National Park.

"Oak trees in this area are particularly sensitive to climate change," states Büntgen, explaining why these sites were selected. The oldest wood sample used in this survey dates back to the year 996 A.D., a time when the Holy Roman Empire was just coming into being. A total of 135,000 individual growth rings were measured to obtain a detailed overview of the history of rainfall in Germany, covering major eras ranging from the optimal Medieval climate (warm and humid) through the Little Ice Age (dry and cold) to that of the Industrial Climate Change (dry and warm).

The late Middle Ages were characterized by two distinct wet periods in Central Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, separated by dry summer weather between 1300 and 1340. "The increase in summer rainfall between 1350 and 1370 is remarkable and occurred exactly at the time when the plague broke out and spread across the entire European continent," Büntgen specifies. This was followed by a generally drier phase from the late 15th century to the early 18th century. More wet summers occured at the beginning and at the end of the 18th century, while a trend towards a drier climate has developed over the last 200 years.

"We think that our results will also be useful for historians, as it may possible to associate droughts with famines and perhaps even large-scale migration events," is the view shared by the climate researchers Büntgen and Esper. The researchers hope that collaboration between the natural and social sciences in interdisciplinary research projects will, in future, provide more information on the links between climatic and social processes of change. They themselves will be continuing their research into the Medieval plague epidemic, the Black Death.

Journal Reference: Büntgen et al. Tree-ring indicators of German summer drought over the last millennium. Quaternary Science Reviews, 2010; 29 (7-8)

Source: Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

New "Camelot" TV series to be made

Television viewers who can't miss the latest episde of The Tudors or other historically-based fair will soon have a new program to watch - Camelot, which will be based on Thomas Malory’s 15th century book, Le Morte d’Arthur.

Starz Entertainment and GK Films will be producing the 10-episode series, which will debut in the first half of 2011. They describe Camelot as a modern telling of the Arthur legends that is relatable to contemporary audiences.

“The story of Arthur isn’t history, it’s mythology, and Camelot isn’t a place but an idea of hope that has resonated intensely at different times throughout history,” Starz, LLC, President and CEO Chris Albrecht said. “The creative team has envisioned a highly entertaining and distinctly original TV program that fits in perfectly with our lineup, coming on the heels of our successful original series Spartacus: Blood and Sand and the returning comedy Party Down, along with our recent acquisition of the event series based on Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. ”

Academy Award winning producer Graham King, who is one of Executive Producers for the series, added, “The legend of King Arthur is a fascinating story that we couldn’t be more excited to have as our first television project.”

Casting for the series is now underway, with filming set to start in June. The series will be shot in Ireland, with post-production to be done in Canada.

Starz started airing its other historical series - Spartacus: Blood and Sand - earlier this year. It has been criticized for by television advocacy groups for its violence and adult content.

Click here to see our page about Spartacus: Blood and Sand (History of the Ancient World site)

Source: Starz

12th century music manuscript discovered at the Heart of Hawick

Rachel Hosker, Archive Manager, and her staff at the Heritage Hub, Heart of Hawick, in Scotland, have unearthed an incredibly rare music manuscript. The 12th century music manuscript would have been used by monastic orders for Holy Week and has excited medieval music experts throughout the world.

On Monday 19 April, Matthew Cheung Salisbury, Worcester College, Oxford University will be visiting Heart of Hawick to talk about the importance of this document and how it was used - with some excerpts of the manuscript being played for the first time since its discovery.

The music manuscript was found in an uncatalogued collection of family and solicitors’ papers relating to the Rutherfords of Knowesouth, near Jedburgh, and the mystery of how it was found in this collection is still being investigated. The document will be on public display for a short period and a series of events are being planned to highlight the findings.

Matthew Cheung Salisbury said: "The medieval liturgical manuscripts that have survived to the present represent a very small fraction of the number that were produced. Only careful study and preservation of every part of this important cultural evidence, including the Hawick missal fragment, will help to shed light on what is arguably the central feature of medieval spiritual life; the complex but fascinating body of texts that was the liturgy”.

The manuscript is a fragment from a Missal, the liturgical book that contained the texts used by the priest for Mass; in this case a noted Missal, containing the items sung by the choir as well. The first recto and verso give part of the procession on Palm Sunday; the second give the second half of Monday after Palm Sunday and the beginning of the following Tuesday. The second recto begins in the middle of the gospel reading for the Monday after Palm Sunday. Then follow the offertory, secret, communion, post communion; then for Tuesday the introit, collect, lesson, gradual, and part of the Gospel reading.

Rachel Hosker, Archive Manager Heritage Hub said: “We’re delighted to have discovered the manuscript and to have Matthew Cheung Salisbury and other experts so excited about what it can tell us about medieval life. The team at the Heritage Hub will be working further on the Rutherford collection to see if more can be found out about the mystery of how it came to be there”.

Commenting on the rare find, Graham Garvie, Executive Member for Culture, Sport and Community Learning said: “Matthew Cheung Salisbury’s talk will give us a fascinating insight into the spiritual world of the 12th century. The detective work involved in finding this manuscript and bringing it to the attention of world medieval music experts demonstrates the essential role professional archive services have in preserving our culture and heritage”.

Source: Heart of Hawick Heritage Hub

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Money raised to keep Staffordshire Hoard in England

The campaign to keep the Staffordshire Hoard in England has successfully raised the £3.3 million needed to purchase the Anglo-Saxon treasure. The Art Fund announced today that the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) has pledged £1,285,000 to complete the effort.

The purchase means that the hundreds of items from the archaeological discovery will be kept at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. The Art Fund launched the campaign in mid-January and had already raised £2 million. They have now reached their goal three weeks ahead of schedule.

Stephen Deuchar, Director of The Art Fund, said: "We have been absolutely bowled over by the enthusiasm and fascination the Staffordshire Hoard has sparked amongst the British public, as well as visitors from abroad. It is wonderful news that the NHMF has enabled the target of £3.3m to be reached ahead of the deadline, and I hope that this will give the West Midlands a head-start with the next stage in fundraising for the conservation, research and display of the treasure."

National Heritage Memorial Fund is a government body set up in 1980 to provide financial assistance to preserve British historical treasures. They have funded many medieval projects, including the preservation of the Macclesfield Psalter and the Mappa Mundi.

Dame Jenny Abramsky, Chair of NHMF, said: "We’re delighted to be able to announce this news today. The Staffordshire Hoard is an extraordinary heritage treasure. It is exactly the sort of thing the National Heritage Memorial Fund was set up to save, stepping in as the ‘fund of last resort’ when our national heritage is at risk, as a fitting memorial to those who have given their lives in the service of our nation. We’re delighted, in our 30th anniversary year, to be able to make sure it stays just where it belongs, providing rare insights into one of the more mysterious periods of our history."

British Culture Minister Margaret Hodge added: “This is fantastic news. The great thing about the National Heritage Memorial Fund – and the reason we fought so hard to maintain its funding for next year in a tight economic climate – is that it can move quickly to help save items at very short notice. The Staffordshire Hoard is a great example of this. Thanks to this grant, these superb items will be able to stay – and be enjoyed – where they belong: in the Midlands where they were discovered.”

Historian David Starkey, who helped launched the Art Fund drive, said “This news from the National Heritage Memorial Fund is wonderful. The Staffordshire Hoard provides us with vital clues to our ancient past and now we can set about decoding them. I’m delighted that all the other funding bodies and the generous public have helped save these breathtaking treasures for posterity.”

With this funding goal reached, the Art Fund now commences a longer term fundraising strategy will now be underway to raise a further £1.7 million for vital conservation and research work to take place.

The Hoard will undergo a period of research and conservation before going on permanent display in Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent. Both Museums are working closely with two major institutions to explore the potential of lending items for display at other venues.

The Staffordshire Hoard, containing over 1,500 objects predominantly of a martial nature, is believed to date from around the 7th century AD. In total, the Hoard is made up 5kg of gold and 1.3kg of silver - topping the record set by the Sutton Hoo find in Suffolk. Experts believe that, due to the high quality of craftsmanship displayed on the items, they may have been made for royal ownership. These riches provide new insight into the Anglo-Saxon people and a better understanding of the role the Mercia region.

Click here to go to our special Feature of the Staffordshire Hoard.

Sources: The Art Fund, National Heritage Memorial Fund

Monday, March 22, 2010

Brill posts increased profits for 2009

The academic publisher Brill earned €2.1 million in profit in the last year, which they attribute to lower operational costs and strong sales of its online products. The Dutch based publisher is one of the largest publishers of academic materials in the field of medieval studies.

In a press release, Brill said they had a "solid performance in 2009" with €26.1 million in revenue, compared to €25.7 the previous year. In 2008, Brill only had a profit of €0.2 million.

While sales of print books decline by 4% in 2009, electronic materials increased by 34% over the year, and now makes up 21% of total sales. The publisher said in their report that while the number of books they are printing has remained stable, "less favorable expectations for new books forced the company to scrutinize new projects and implement policies to use printing on demand and reduce inventory. Special focus was on the sale of electronic books, foremost in the context of subject collections."

Brill expects to continue to grow its collection of reference works, such as the Encyclopaedia of Islam and its 135 journals, which include Medieval Encounters and Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. They hope that their efforts on putting more and more content in electronic form will keep the company healthy if print sales continue to fall.

The report also notes that "during the year the painful decision was made to reduce headcount by ten percent and implement cost cutting measures in light of disappointing sales. Thanks to the flexible and constructive attitude of its employees the organization has successfully met its strategic and operational goals and returned to solid profitability."

They believe that they will remain profitable in 2010, but add "the financial and economic crisis for the library market globally is still hard to predict."

Brill, which based in Leiden, Netherlands, celebrated its 325th anniversary in 2008. It has been one of the most important publishers of medieval studies books for several decades, producing dozens of volumes each year.

Click here to read their press release with more details about their performance in 2009.

Canterbury Tales manuscript to be digitized

Experts from The University of Manchester's John Rylands Library are to spend four days at a beautiful seventeenth century mansion to capture its world famous Canterbury Tales manuscript on camera.

From today to March 25th, visitors to the National Trusts' Petworth House, Sussex, will be able to watch the team of four as they work with cutting edge equipment to record the early 15th century Chaucer manuscript in close detail.

It is part of a 18-month project - funded by JISC - which showcases The University of Manchester as one of the country's leading centres for digitisation of rare books, manuscripts and archives.

The Petworth edition of the famous stories was hand written between 1420 and 1450, just a few years after they were first conceived by Geoffrey Chaucer. The Tales relate a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims to create an ironic picture of 14th century English life. It is thought the manuscript has been at Petworth for at least four hundred years.

The Centre of Digital Excellence will support universities, colleges, libraries and museums which lack the resources to carry out the specialised work. Using images taken by a £22,000 camera, scholars will be able to study rare books, archival documents, artworks and museum artefacts in huge detail.

Mark Purcell, Libraries Curator for the National Trust said: "The Petworth Chaucer manuscript is one of the most important books in the possession of the Trust.

“It is believed to have been written in England ca.1420-1430, perhaps for the 3rd Earl of Northumberland (1421-1461) or for the 2nd Earl (1394-1455), who was married to Eleanor Neville, Chaucer’s grand-niece.

“Another possibility is that the manuscript was bequeathed in 1451 by Sir Thomas Cumberworth to his grand-niece, whose husband acted as agent for the 4th Earl of Northumberland.

"The text includes many forms of words peculiar to the West and North Midlands. It was written by a single hand, and there are many decorated initials."

Assistant Librarian Carol Burrows, from The University of Manchester, manages the project. She said: "We're very excited to be working with the National Trust to launch this project.

"No other organisation in the north of England specialises in the object-centred digitisation of heritage materials.

"As the set-up costs of such facilities are prohibitive for most institutions, many can't afford to carry out this sort of work.

"Over the eighteen months, we will be investigating whether a Centre for Heritage Digitisation, based within The University of Manchester, will work as a commercial concern.

"By locating the Centre within the University we will be able to draw on our exceptional body of skills and expertise."

Ben Showers, programme manager at JISC, said: " What makes this project so exciting is that not only will the John Rylands Library be working with other organisations to make available online some rare and important scholarly works.

“But they will also be exploring business models for the long term viability of digitisation.

“JISC's funding of this centre of excellence will help support smaller cultural organisations such as university or college archives and libraries

“It will make available precious resources that the organisations themselves may not have the skills, resources or simply the time, to put online."

The images will be made available on-line as part of the John Ryland’s Library’s Medieval Collection:

Source: University of Manchester

University of Toronto scholars win Mellon Foundation fellowships

University of Toronto medieval historian Nicholas Everett and Walid Saleh, a scholar of religion and Near and Middle Eastern civilizations, have each been selected to receive a highly competitive New Directions Fellowship from the Mellon Foundation to pursue cross-disciplinary research. It is the first time the fellowships, created in 2002, have been awarded outside of the United States.

The New Directions Fellowships are unique in that they enable young humanists to explore new lines of research by gaining additional expertise in a field outside of their area of specialization. For Nicholas Everett, who holds a PhD in history, the fellowship means he can do research shedding new light on the history of medicine and science by undertaking specialized coursework in pharmacology and toxicology.

"There has been an explosion of interest in the medicinal potential of plant, mineral and animal products of the last decade. This renewed scientific interest in natural product pharmacy provides opportunities for a more sophisticated understanding of human interaction with the natural world in the past, and the rationale behind historical traditions of drug use, discovery and theory," Everett says. "By understanding the chemistry of natural drugs and the processes they affect, historical texts on pharmacy can be read more sensitively, claims more effectively evaluated and traditions better understood and explained."

Everett will draw upon his training to pursue three themes in the history of pharmacy which recent discoveries in biochemistry, pharmacology and neuroscience place in a new light: notions of taste and smell in relation to health and pharmacy; traditions of compound drugs; and what constituted proof or the authority to declare a drug effective or safe in the pre-modern world. Tracing these themes across different periods and cultures, says Everett, will make important contributions to our understanding of both the history of science and the history of medicine.

Walid Saleh will use his fellowship to undertake a comprehensive unified history of the Arabic Bible in the Middle East where three of the world's major religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - began and still co-exist side by side. It's a research direction that arose quite serendipitously. "While researching the history of Quranic interpretation, my main field, I came across al-Biqa`i (d. 1480) who used the Hebrew Bible and the four Gospels to interpret Biblical references in the Qur'an. This was an unprecedented use of these two scriptures in Islam," says Saleh. The fortunate find led him to realize that no comprehensive study of the history of the Bible in the Islamic religious imagination had been done. "Such a study is essential since the Arabic Bible represents a truly Jewish-Christian-Islamic event in the collective religious history of the Middle East. The presence of active members of the three communities side by side make for a fascinating relationship to the Bible, with each religious community aware of the other's views of the same book," says Saleh. In particular, Saleh plans to undertake serious training in Jewish study, including Biblical Hebrew, so as to chart a detailed history of the ways in which Islamic religious tradition interacted with the Bible and how each religion's interpretation of the Bible affected and influenced the other.

"Scholarship that crosses disciplinary boundaries holds tremendous potential," says Meric S. Gertler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, University of Toronto. "Some of the most exciting discoveries and insights occur when different fields intersect. We are delighted that the Mellon Foundation is not only enabling these two outstanding humanists to pursue their innovative research but is, through the New Directions program, fostering a standard of excellence for cross-disciplinary research more generally."

The Mellon Foundation has long been known for its support of the humanities, arts and higher education. The New Directions Fellowships assist faculty members in the humanities and humanistic social sciences by enabling them to acquire substantive and methodological training outside of their discipline so they are able to work with sophistication on the specific research problems that interest them most. Recipients of the fellowships are relatively early in their careers, having have received their PhD between five and 15 years previously, and so the fellowships are viewed as long-term investments in a scholar's intellectual range and productivity.

Source: University of Toronto

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Castle for Sale in Ireland

A medieval castle in Ireland has been put up for sale after financial problems forced its hotel business into liquidation.  Kilkea Castle in County Kildare, Ireland, was built in 1180 and remained in the hands of one family for over 700 years. It is now used as a hotel and golf course, and is particularly noted as a venue for hosting weddings.

According to Irish media reports, the asking price for Kilkea Castle and its 145-acre estate is €16 million. Until recently, the property was being managed by Leoville Limited, who leased the property from an Irish-American owner for a yearly payment of €515,000. But declining revenues from a lack of tourism, as well as debts incurred from building an extra 33 lodges at their golf course, forced the company into liquidation late last year.

General manager John Kissane told the Irish Times that the castle handles about 120 weddings a year, earning between €20,000 to €25,000 for each event.

The Anglo-Norman lord Hugh de Lacey built a motte and bailey castle on this site in 1180. The castle went into the hands of Maurice FitzGerald, 3rd Lord of Offaly and Justiciar of Ireland, and remained in the hands of the FitzGerald family until the 1960s.

Lisney Property Management, who are selling the castle, describe it as "a beautiful and historic property that has stood proudly for over 800 years. It is one of the largest inhabited castles in Ireland with established hotel, golf and leisure facilities. The castle grounds provide a magnificent backdrop to the championship golf course and to the on-site modern 33 unit (99 bedroom) lodge development.

"The castle was established in 1180 by Hugh de Lacey and was once owned by the Geraldine dynasty. Kilkea Castle Hotel has 36 en-suite bedrooms, fine dining room, bar/lounge, banqueting facilities, on-site leisure centre with indoor heated swimming pool and gym. There is also a 27 bedroom staff building."

Click here for a brochure with more information about Kilkea Castle.

Click here to go to our section Castles for Sale

Sources: Lisney, Irish Times, Irish Central,

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cardiff Castle gets its own Trebuchet

Cardiff Castle in Wales has taken delivery of one of the deadliest military machines of its time, a colossal catapult known as a trebuchet, straight from the set of the forthcoming star-studded movie ‘Ironclad’. The first public firing of this formidable machine in the grounds of Cardiff Castle will take place on Saturday, March 27th.

A trebuchet was a siege engine, developed in the 13th century to attack the solid walls of castles. Using a sophisticated counter balance system, large rocks and stones could be placed in a catapult sling and hurled with such a force they could breach the strongest of fortifications and were capable of firing missiles in excess of 150 kilograms.

The trebuchet acquired by Cardiff Castle was built as an historically accurate replica for the forthcoming British/ American film Ironclad, directed by Jonathan English and filmed entirely on location in south Wales at the Dragon Internatlonal Film Studios. Starring Paul Giamatti, James Purefoy, Brian Cox, Mackenzie Crook, James Flemyng, Derek Jacobi and Kate Mara, the film chronicles the great siege of Rochester Castle in 1215, when a group of rebel Barons defended one of the most important strategic forts in Britain against the ruthless King John who was hell bent on reclaiming his power following the signing of the Magna Carta.

Bringing the trebuchet to its new home at Cardiff Castle has been a collaboration with Runnymede Productions and the team of locally based professional set makers and carpenters who were responsible for initially making and subsequently re-assembling this monster of a machine. The trebuchet stands at 10 metres (approx. 35 ft high), weighs up to 6 tons and it takes 8 people to load and fire the machine.

Cardiff Castle has also enlisted the help of ‘A’ level Maths and Physics students from Cardiff High School who have been given the task of working out the mathematical calculations for firing the trebuchet for optimal range and velocity.”

Head of Mathematics at Cardiff High School, Rhiannon Bill said, “This was a fantastic one – off opportunity for the students to test the theory of applied mathematics in a very practical way. It's a perfect cross-curricular project and could also involve the History and Design and Technology Departments."

Nigel Howells, Executive Member for Sport, Leisure and Culture with Cardiff Council said: “The trebuchet is a superb and authentic addition to Cardiff Castle. It is sure to be a huge attraction in its own right and a great addition to the Castle’s burgeoning events programme.”

Cardiff Castle is one of Wales' leading historic attractions, with the site being home to a Roman Garrison, a Norman stronghold and a Victorian mansion. For more information, please go to the Cardiff Castle website.

Source: Cardiff Castle

Friday, March 19, 2010

New Book Suggests Paradigm Shift in Understanding of Ancient and Medieval Political Theory

We like to think of the political thought that emerged in the Middle Ages as something of an aberration. Stuck between the secular politics of the ancient and modern worlds, it looks like a strange hiatus where the supernatural held sway.

But that's not how history unfolded, says former Williams College president Francis Oakley. In a groundbreaking new book, he concludes that the Middle Ages, not ancient Greece and Rome, "provided the origins of our inherently secular politics."

Oakley writes in the introduction to "Empty Bottles of Gentilism: Kingship and the Divine in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (to 1050)" that the transition from the ancient to the Christian outlook was "a shift, not so much from a secular to a religious viewpoint, as from one ancient and widespread mode of religious consciousness to another and radically different one."

We like to point to Plato and Aristotle’s political thinking as evidence that the ancient world was secular and much like our own, Oakley writes. But the truth is, since the beginning of recorded history, most societies have had sacred kings. The “republicanism” of the ancient Greek polis was just a “fleeting episode.”

Moreover, it wasn't the kind of politics we think of today, since the status of individuals depended on their membership in a group. The modern notions of autonomous individuality and individual rights came later, in the early-modern era but rooted in the "intellectual seedbed" of the Latin Middle Ages.

The direct political legacy, then, "of Greece to the Roman world and of Rome to the European centuries that followed was in both cases a predominantly monarchical one." And so the historical "rhythm" of the ancient, medieval, and modern periods "is not a secular-religious-secular one, but rather, religious-religious-secular."

Oakley's new book proposes, "no less than a paradigm shift in our understanding of ancient and medieval political theory in the global context of sacral kingship," wrote Marcia Colish of Yale University, an expert on the intellectual history of the Middle Ages.

"Oakley confronts all the major historiographical currents relevant to his subject and reveals that none of them can withstand the force of his critique," said Steven Marrone, professor of history at Tufts University. "There is indeed nothing comparable in the literature to this single effort on Oakley's part."

At Williams since 1961, Oakley has a long history with the college. In addition to serving as dean of the faculty from 1977 to 1984 and as president from 1985 to 1993, he is the Edward Dorr Griffin Professor of the History of Ideas emeritus. In his retirement, he is back at Williams as the Bennett Boskey Visiting Professor of History, teaching a tutorial on the evolution of political thought from late antiquity to the 1700s.

Oakley has written widely on the Middle Ages and on American higher education. He is the author of 13 books, including “Community of Learning: The American College and the Liberal Arts Tradition”; “The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870,” winner of the 2004 Roland Bainton Book Prize; “Natural Law, Laws of Nature, Natural Rights,” named as an outstanding academic title by Choice Magazine; and “Kingship: The Politics of Enchantment.” Oakley is also co-editor of three other books and nearly 200 of his articles, translations, and reviews have appeared in print.

Oakley has served as president of the New England Medieval Conference, of the Fellows of the Medieval Academy of America, and of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). He was also chair of the board of the ACLS, of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina and president of the board of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. He served on the editorial boards of The Journal of the History of Ideas and of Orion: Nature Quarterly. In 1986, he was elected Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, in 1991 Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford and, in 1998, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He received his B.A. from Oxford University and his Ph.D. from Yale. He holds seven honorary degrees, including one from Williams. Oakley has taught at Yale, Oxford, the University of Toronto, and North Adams State College.

The book was written with the support of a Mellon Foundation Emeritus Research Fellowship. Published by Yale University Press, it is the first volume in a trilogy titled "The Emergence of Western Political Thought in the Latin Middle Ages."

Source: Williams College

The Carolingians and Old St Peter’s

Dr Joanna Story, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Leicester, will deliver a keynote lecture at the prestigious Old St Peter’s conference taking place at the British School at Rome from the 22nd to the 25th March.

Old St Peter's was built by the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, in the early fourth century, over the site where the Apostle Peter was thought to have been buried. The massive basilica - the biggest in the western empire - became the focus of St Peter's cult and the most important church in western Christendom for 1300 years until its destruction in the 16th century. But despite its central importance and the survival of extensive documentary, artistic and archaeological evidence, many secrets remain to be uncovered.

This major international conference brings together academics from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, Florence, Rome and many other top institutions to deliver papers on the history of the basilica.

Dr Story will deliver a lecture entitled ‘The Carolingians and Old St Peter’s’, which will focus on the gifts given by Charlemagne’s family to St Peter which were placed within the basilica.

Dr Story commented:“Old St Peter's was a vast structure that fired the faith and imagination of kings and pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. It was almost totally destroyed during the Renaissance, but surviving fragments and eye witness accounts that date from as early as the eighth century mean that we can reconstruct in detail its function as a ‘theatre’ of worship, burial and power throughout the Middle Ages.”

‘Old St Peter’s Conference’ takes place from the 22 – 25 March at the British School at Rome. To visit the conference’s website, please visit

Source: University of Leicester

New lessons from York’s Medieval massacre

A major international conference next week will take a fresh perspective on one of the darkest episodes in English medieval history - the mass suicide and murder of Jewish men, women and children in York in 1190.

The University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies will host the conference which brings together scholars from a range of disciplines to examine the events of 1190. It will feature speakers from the USA, Canada and Europe as well as the UK.

The massacre on the site of Clifford's Tower in York was one of a series of attacks on local communities of Jews across England in 1189-90.

The conference will use the events of the period to reassess the rapid changes in communities, and their relationship to Royal and ecclesiastical government, at the time locally, nationally and throughout Europe. One of the aims of the conference is to keep the story of these events alive for a new audience and a new generation of scholars.

York 1190 – Jews and Others in the Wake of Massacre will take advantage of the substantial amount of new research on twelfth-century England. This includes work on government and local power, ethnic identity, relationships with Europe and the development of distinct regional identities, as well as new intellectual and religious models of community and pastoral care.

Conference organiser Dr Sarah Rees Jones said: “Our aim is to consider the massacre as central to the narrative of English history around 1200 as well as that of Jewish history. This conference will provide a new perspective on these events.”

The conference which takes place from 22 to 24 March at The King’s Manor, in York city centre, will also feature a special presentation to Professor Barrie Dobson, Emeritus Professor in the Centre for Medieval Studies, in recognition of his work on medieval Jewish history.

For more information about the conference, go to

Source: University of York

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Auction for the first copy of Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven begins today!

To celebrate the worldwide launch of international bestseller Guy Gavriel Kay’s much anticipated new novel Under Heaven, Penguin Group (Canada) is auctioning the first book off the press anywhere in the world, autographed by the author. Signed and verified by the printer and the publisher, this first copy includes a product identification slip and letter from the printing press identifying the book as the first copy printed in Canada. The auction begins March 18, 2010 on eBay, and closes March 25, 2010.

All proceeds from the auction will be donated to Indigo Books and Music, Inc.’s Love of Reading Fund. The fund directly supports high-needs elementary school literacy programs across Canada. Guy Gavriel Kay will personally match the winning bid to a maximum of $1000 (CDN). Additionally, Penguin Canada will match the winning bid to a maximum of $500 (CDN).

Under Heaven will go on-sale in Canada on April 3. Inspired by the glory of Tang Dynasty China in the eighth century, Guy Gavriel Kay melds history and the fantastic into something both powerful and emotionally compelling. Under Heaven is a novel on the grandest narrative scale, encompassing the intimate details of individual lives in an unforgettable time and place.

Earlier this month, Penguin Group (Canada) launched, a website dedicated entirely to Kay’s oeuvre, and featuring an array of music files, artwork, and downloadable wallpaper and posters, plus a first chapter excerpt of Under Heaven, a journal by the author, Twitter and Facebook links, book synopsis, and Canadian tour information.

Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and raised in Winnipeg. In the 1970's he was retained by the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien to assist in the editorial construction of Tolkien's posthumously published The Silmarillion. He returned to Canada from Oxford to take a law degree at the University of Toronto and was called to the Bar in Ontario.

Kay became Principal Writer and Associate Producer for the CBC radio series, "The Scales of Justice", dramatizing major criminal trials in Canadian history. He also wrote several episodes when the series later moved to television. He has written social and political commentary for the National Post and the Globe and Mail and for The Guardian in England, and has spoken on a variety of topics at universities and conferences around the world.

In 1984, Kay's first novel, The Summer Tree, the first volume of The Fionavar Tapestry, was published to considerable acclaim in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, and then in a number of countries and languages. In 1990 Viking Canada's edition of his novel Tigana reached the national bestseller list, and his next book A Song for Arbonne debuted at #1 nationally. Kay has been a bestseller with each novel since.

Translations now exceed twenty languages and Kay has toured and read on behalf of his publishers and at literary events across Canada, and in countries ranging from the United States and England to Poland, France, Russia, Croatia, Serbia, Mexico and Greece, among others, with his next international appearance being slated for June 2010 in Shanghai and Beijing. He has been nominated for and has won numerous literary awards and is the recipient of the International Goliardos Prize (presented in Mexico City) for his contributions to the literature of the fantastic.

Click here to see our page for Under Heaven in the Fiction section.

Source: Penguin Group (Canada)

Israeli archaeologists identified Caliph Mu’awiya’s Lakeside Palace

Israeli archaeologists report that they have identified the palace of the Umayyad caliphs at al-Sinnabra – modern Beth Yerah or Kh. el-Kerak – on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The discovery is based on results of the recent Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology excavations headed by Raphael Greenberg and on research conducted by Taufik Deadle of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The existence of a palace at al-Sinnabra is reported by early Arab historians, but its precise location was long unknown. Between 1950 and 1953 the archaeologists Guy and Bar-Adon excavated a large fortified structure on Tel Bet Yerah which they dated to the Byzantine period (c. 330-620 CE). A large hall in the center of the complex had a curved apse facing south and colorful mosaic floors. When they discovered a stone bearing an engraved depiction of a seven-branched candelabrum, they quickly dubbed the entire building a synagogue, and it was soon incorporated in the Beth Yerah National Park – a popular tourist destination during the 1950s and 1960s, now abandoned. Over the years the identification of the structure was questioned, but only in 2002 was a new interpretation offered by Donald Whitcomb of the University of Chicago: the “synagogue” was in fact the Palace of al-Sinnabra, where Umayyad rulers used to spend the winter months near the regional capital at Tiberias.

The 1950’s excavations were hasty, and hardly any finds from the complex have survived. This required archaeologists to carry out a methodic reexamination of the structure, of which only the foundations remain. Preliminary study of the meager finds and of coins discovered beneath its floors soon showed that the central building could have been built no earlier than 650 CE, and that a sumptuous bathhouse attached to the outer wall dates to the end of the same century. Many remains of water conduits and ceramic pipes attest to the existence of a sophisticated water-distribution system, fed by an aqueduct.

Early historians of the Umayyad dynasty report that this palace was used by the first Caliph, Mu’awiya, as well as by Abd al-Malik, the builder of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The palace was a center of royal activity, with the fate of princes being decided within it. After the fall of the dynasty, al-Sinnabra declined and the palace was dismantled down to its foundations. However, the surviving remains – thick wall-stubs over two meters deep – permit the reconstruction of the layout of the palace, the bathhouse and the wall and towers that protected them during the first century after the birth of Islam.

“This discovery is significant not only because of the importance of the Umayyad palace”, notes Greenberg, “but because of its unique location next to an earlier Byzantine church and a short distance away from the historical cemetery of early Zionist pioneers. Taking into account the more ancient remains at the site as well as the lake itself, we have a remarkable convergence of natural and historic values that represent the full complexity of the heritage of present-day Israel.”

Source: Tel Aviv University