Northern Barbarians in the eyes of the Romans

The ancient Greeks used the onomatopoeic term "barbarian" (in ancient Greek: βάρβαρος, bárbaros), literally "stutterer", to indicate the foreigner. The derogatory nuance, "the one who cannot speak (and think)", present from the beginning, was further accentuated after the clash with the Persians. During the Hellenistic age, when the Greek world expanded due to the conquests by Alexander the Great (thus coming to encompass vast pan-Hellenic territories and nations), the Greeks found themselves having to reconsider the Barbarian in a cosmopolitan vision and to discover moral aspects and qualities not taken into consideration until then: the educated barbarians, founders of philosophy, religion and art. From that moment, in fact, every man who spoke, read and wrote in Greek legitimately entered the world and Greek culture.

While watching Plautus' comedies, the Romans had laughed at the Greek definition, for the latter ones could also be included in the concept of barbarian. This term became part of their vocabulary, especially since, starting from the sack of Rome of 387 BC. by the Gauls Senonii led by Brenno, they began to call these new enemies from the North as barbarians. They did it with a much different meaning than the original Greek one, while at the same time these new enemies were so different from the Italic and Mediterranean peoples with which they had clashed until then. Throughout the 2nd century BC the successors of those Gauls, the Cimbri and the Teutons, continued to represent a feared threat to the Romans.

The otherness proven towards them is visible in the figurative representations (e.g. frieze of Civitalba, of Talomone) and in literary texts, in which the Romans reproduce, accentuating them, the characters of diversity of these peoples: the long unkempt hair, the build gigantic, unusual weapons, the use of breeches (bracae). This otherness together with the terror that resulted from it provoked a rather ferocious reaction from the Romans.

One remembers, for example, the ritual of burying a pair of Gauls and one of Greeks inside the Forum Boarium - burial documented for the years 228, 216 and 114 - the latter guilty once of having allied themselves with the former, or the practice of extermination, theorized as necessary for the salvation of Rome and Italy. And again, if the Barbarians had the inmanis ac barbara consuetudo of human sacrifices and cut heads, Rome reacted by adopting the same costume, as shown by some scenes depicted on the Trajan column showing Roman soldiers intent on mass beheadings, or fighting with the severed heads of the enemy held between the teeth by the hair, or to adorn the palisades of their casts with severed heads (Figs. 1-3).

barbari barbarians
Fig. 1 - Detail of the frieze of the Trajan Column, with the representation of two auxiliaries intent on showing the Emperor the two severed heads of important chiefs of the Dacians. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture in Conrad Cichorius: "Die Reliefs der Traianssäule", Erster Tafelband: "Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges", Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

With the subsequent Romanization of Gaul and the consequent gradual change of Celtic culture, the Romans reevaluated their ancient enemies. Caesar and Cicero came to consider the Gauls "consanguineous of the Romans", while Timagene (1st century BC) linked them to a mythical Trojan origin, as was also repeated in the 4th century AD by the historian Ammiano Marcellino in his Res gestae, where he reported: “Aiunt quidam paucos post excidium Troiae fugitantes Graecos ubique dispersos loca haec occupasse tunc vacua” (Liber XIV, 1, 9, 5).

On the other hand, the populations of Gallic origin also began to boast of this fraternitas with the Romans, as some panegyrics by the Aedui seem to testify, made during the last republican and early imperial age, in which a tradition is likely to be attested originated at the same time as the first expeditions of Rome in the Gallic hinterland, when the Aedui had made use of the Roman successes to overturn the power relations with the opponents Arverni1. This tradition, proudly cultivated in literary circles (and not without a little tendentious though interested deformations), emphasized several times the bond of fraternitas with the Roman people (IV, 21, 2; V, 4, 1; VII, 22, 4; VIII, 2, 4 and 3, 1), even going so far as to affirm that this strong bond had been, even if not very credibly, sanctioned by the same senate that gave the Aedui in addition to the appellation of fratres, also that of consanguinitatis nomen (see VIII, 2, 4 and 3, 1), which made them stand out from other Gallic nations.

barbari barbarians
Fig. 2 - Detail of the frieze of the Trajan's Column, with a soldier who fights holding the beheaded head of one of the Dacians between his teeth. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture from Conrad Cichorius: "Die Reliefs der Traianssäule", Erster Tafelband: "Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges", Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

Starting from the Augustan age, therefore, the term "Barbarian" was shifted towards those who lived beyond the Rhine and who until then had only had sporadic contact with the Romans, the Germanic peoples.
The first Roman to cross the Rhine was Caesar in 55 BC, and he was responsible for the first and summary information on the Germanic peoples and on the other tribes of the same lineage, of which he described the rough and fierce customs, keeping them carefully distinguished from the Gauls, for whom a different and far-sighted political project matured.

Other information on the ancient Germanic peoples was collected in the lost work of Pliny the Elder, Bella Germaniae, of which, however, memories are kept inside the Germania of Tacitus2. Within this, the author was among the first to enhance the courage in battle of these peoples, the simplicity of their customs, the high value they gave to the hospitality and of which he also admired the consequent moral health and austerity of the their barbaric customs putting them in stark contrast to the rampant immorality and decadence of Roman customs.

barbari barbarians
Fig. 3 - Detail of the frieze of the Trajan's Column, where Dacian heads impaled near the Roman settlement can be seen. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture from Conrad Cichorius: "Die Reliefs der Traianssäule", Erster Tafelband: "Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges", Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

Not even the bloody battle of Teutoburg in 9 AD, which saw the three legions commanded by Publio Quintilio Varo annihilated by a coalition of Germanic tribes led by Cherusco prince Arminius, served to diminish the value attributed to these peoples, indeed their combat skills were further emphasized.
Courage and bellicosity, together with personal loyalty, were the qualities that made these "Barbarians of the North" ideal mercenaries in the eyes of the Romans; and barbarian bodyguards, Germans, along with Gauls and Iberians were hired by several "warlords" of Roman origin. In the same way, many of them were used as gladiators, a use that made them popular, however confirming their reputation as dangerous barbarians. Not only that, over time many Germanic peoples became part of the auxiliary troops of the Roman army and in some loved ones they came to play the role of magister militum and consuls.

But how did the Romans see these Barbarians? Their appearance is known to us through the official Roman art that obviously related to the military and consequently to the war.

Fig. 4 - Detail of the frieze of the Trajan's Column, depicting the end of the first Dacian war, in which there are the two war trophies, made up of a pile of weapons taken from the enemy; above these you can see the pole on which an entire dace armor was rebuilt. You can recognize the typical loricate armor, the wolf-headed totems and the ogival helmets typical of the Dacians. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture from Conrad Cichorius: "Die Reliefs der Traianssäule", Erster Tafelband: "Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges", Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

We know the different propaganda policies put in place for the military triumphs of the Roman generals over the Barbarian peoples. These provided that the winner was awarded the cognomen of the defeated people (e.g. Germanic peoples, British, Dacian, Sarmatic, Gothic, etc.) and that a whole series of celebrations and titles of figured monuments took place (arches, altars, temples, statues , coins), on which the defeated barbarians tied under a trophy made up of their weapons were represented, a way of impressing on the minds of the subjects of the Empire the memory of the power of Rome (Fig. 4).

Fig. 5 - The Augustan Gem of Vienna. Picture by Gryffindor, CC BY 2.5

The figurative models on which the Romans drew in their first representations of the Barbarians came from the parchment art that he had created, on the theme of the victory of the Greeks against the Galatians (at the time of the invasion of Asia in 279 BC), the masterpieces of donations dedicated to Pergamum by the victorious kings, Attalus I and Eumenes II. The Gauls had been seen by the parchment artists without contempt, represented in a proud and wild way, pervaded by nobility.

Although descending from this tradition, deriving from the stoic idea of respect for the defeated, the Roman representations show on the contrary a more accentuated characterization of diversity and a more direct representation of the superiority of the Romans. The eburneous doors of the temple of Apollo Palatine have been lost, depicting the defeat of the Galatians in Delphi, but a series of other important monuments and artifacts (the lorica of the Augustus of Prima Porta, the Augustan Gem of Vienna, the Grand Cameo of France, etc.) (Figs. 5-6) transmit a certain codified image of the submissive barbarians, represented with flowing hair, uncultivated beards, slings, with often naked torso, sometimes bearing the torques around the neck, often in the presence of their women, in an abandoned attitude.

Fig. 6 - The Grand Cameo of France. Picture © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, modified by Janmad, CC BY-SA 3.0

A reference to the propaganda implemented was also found in the forums of all Roman cities, in the decoration of public buildings, as shown in the trophies of arms of the Schola Armaturarum of Pompeii, but also in private monuments, as in the case of the funerary monument of an “eques pompeianus” in Porta di Nocera, where there is the representation of a stucco shield whose umbo is characterized by the presence of a barbarian head (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7 - The Tomb 13 ES, the funeral monument of the “eques pompeianus”, from Porta di Nocera in Pompei. Photo by Alessandra Randazzo. It is possible to see a detail of the umbo at p. 335 in the text by M. Castiglione, Modelli urbani per forme di auto rappresentazione locale. Il monumento funerario di un eques pompeianus a Porta di Nocera, found in Arte-Potere. Forme Artistiche, Istituzioni, Paradigmi Interpretativi. Atti del convegno di studio tenuto a Pisa Scuola Normale Superiore, 25-27 Novembre 2010, a cura di M. Castiglione e A. Poggio.

From Trajan onwards, with the intensification of military operations on the borders, the representations of barbarians become more and more numerous, examples of which are famous monuments such as the Tropaecum Traiani of Damklissi (109 AD) (Fig. 8), the Trajan column or the large statues of Dacians in porphyry.

In them, and especially in the Trajan column, the feeling of admiration for the Roman virtus coexists with that of respect for the unfortunate heroism of the defeated. Starting from Marcus Aurelius, with the Aurelian column, this feeling is preserved, but turns on the pathetic, moving away from that residue of Hellenistic composure still perceptible in the Trajan column. An evolution that is also observed in private moments, such as on some sarcophagi with battle scenes, such as that of Amendola, by Portonaccio or the later Ludovisi (Figs. 9-10).

Fig. 8 - The Tropaecum Traiani of Damklissi. Picture by CristianChirita, modified by Francesco Bini, CC BY-SA 3.0

This evolution in a dramatic sense would reflect the fragile balance of the Rhine-Danubian limes.
From Marcus Aurelius, onwards, within the Empire, the word Barbarian acquired an increasingly sinister value, linked to the theme of destruction. In this period, in fact, several Germanic peoples incursions crossed the border, reaching more and more frequently the claustra Italiae. These provoked the so-called Marcomannic wars, a long period of military conflicts fought between the Roman army and the German-Sarmatic populations of continental Europe (ca. 167-189), representing the prelude to the great barbarian invasions of the III-V century which led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the formation of the Roman-Barbarian kingdoms.

barbari barbarians
Fig. 9 - Amendola sarcophagus; picture from R. Banchi Bandinelli e M. Torelli, L'arte dell'antichità classica, Etruria-Roma, Utet, Torino 1976. Public domain

Late Antiquity sources present these Barbarians through the new filter created by the controversy between paganism and Christianity and subsequently between Christianity and Arianism, so that a discordant judgment often results. Especially after the sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths led by Alaric of the Balts and the conquest of Italy with the deposition of the young emperor Romulus Augustus of 476 by the king of Heruli, Odoacre, a certain sense of contempt prevailed in the towards these peoples. A contempt to which the Barbarians responded by overturning the insults with no less harsh tones.

Fig. 10 - Grande Ludovisi Altemps (3rd century AD). Picture © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, public domain

This hatred did not seem to subside if still centuries later, the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas apostrophized with "Vos non Romani, sed Langobardi estis [You are not Romans, you are Lombards]" the bishop of Cremona Liutprando, who had been sent as ambassador to the Byzantine court by the emperor of the Holy Roman German Empire, Otto I, to combine a marriage and settle the difficult dispute between the two empires, relative to southern Italy.

Upon his return, the Lombard said he replied to the dismissive guest as follows: “Romulum fratricidam, ex quo et Romani dicti sunt, porniogenitum, hoc est ex adulterio natum, chronographia innotuit, asylumque sibi fecisse in quo alieni aeris debitores, fugitivos servos, homicidas ac pro reatibs suis morte dignos suscepit, multitudinemque quandam talium sibi ascivit, quos Romanos appellavit; ex qua nobilitate propagati sunt ipsi, quos vos kosmocratores, id est imperatores, appellatis. Quos nos, Langobardi, scilicet Saxones, Franci, Lotharingi, Bagoarii, Suevi, Burgundiones, tanto dedignamur [those who are called Romans], ut inimicos nostros commoti nil aliud contumeliarum, nisi: Romane! dicamus, hoc solo, id est Romanorum nomine quicquid ignobilitatis, quicquid timiditatis, quicquid avaritiae, quicquid luxuriae, quicquid mendacii, immo quicquid vitiorum est, comprehendentes". 'Roman!', therefore, for "nos Langobardi" [history made us to know that the fratricide Romulus, from whom the Romans draw their name, was a pomiogenite, that is, born from an adultery, we also know that he created a place of asylum and welcomed the insolvent debtors, the fugitive slaves, the murders ... From this noble descendants of what you call Cosmocrats, or emperors. We, then, namely the Lombards, Saxons, Franks, Lotharingians, Bavarians, Suebi, Burgundians, have them in so much indignation that when we are angry and we must say something offensive to a our enemy, we shout to him "you are Roman", meaning with this Roman name all that there is in the world of more ignoble, more cowardly, more greedy, more corrupt, more false, and in a word, all existing vices ...]3 for which the term "Roman" was used in a derogatory sense as it contained within itself the expression of various vices such as: ignobility, fearfulness, avarice, lust, beggar and so on.

However, precisely the formation of the Roman-Barbarian kingdoms demonstrates how the new ruling elites sought to merge the two cultures, the Germanic and the Roman. One of the first examples of this policy is reported by the Christian apologist Orosius in his Historiarum adversus paganos libri septem. Orosio referring to the Aryan king Athaulf of the Balts wrote that although thesovereign mantained a conflictual relationship with Roman culture: “Referre solitus esset: se inprimis ardenter inhiasse, ut oblitterato Romano nomine Romanum omne solum Gothorum imperium et faceret et vocaret essetque, ut vulgarites loquar, Gothia quod Romania fuisset, et fieret nune Athaulfus quod quondam Caesar Augustus, at ubi multa experiential probavisset naque Gothos ullo modo parere legibus posse propter effrenatam barbariem neque reipublicae interdici leges oportere, sine quibus respublica non est respublica, elegisse saltim, ut gloriam sibi de restituendo in integrum augendoque Romano nomine Gothorum viribus quaereret habereturque apud posteros Romanae restitutionis auctor, postquam esse non potuerat immutator" [He used to say that above all he ardently desired that, erased and forgotten the name of Rome, his whole empire would become the name and in fact empire of the Goths, and that it was Gothia, to put it in the vernacular, what had been Romania, and now that Ataulfo would be come what Cesare Augusto had once been. But since he realized from long experience that the Goths in no way bent to obey the laws for their unbridled barbarism, he had chosen at least the glory of bringing the Roman name back to its ancient prestige with the weapons of the Goths to increase it, and to be remembered by posterity as a restorer of Roman greatness, since he had not managed to be its destroyer].

From these words, it is clear that although Athaulf had wanted to convert the Roman territories into Gothic, he realized that the structure of the Gothic society could not guarantee the same governability of a state as the Roman one. So he decided, probably also thanks to the influence of his wife Galla Placidia, to change strategy: he would pursue a policy of fusion between Goths and Romans, so that the strength of the former strengthened the culture and the name of the latter.

Fig. 11 - The mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna. Picture © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0

This mixture of Roman and Germanic elements is also perceptible in the choice of some barbarian sovereigns to represent themselves as heirs of the Western Roman Empire, through the adoption of symbols of power proper to the Roman area. This is the case, for example, of the Gothic king Theodoric, who grew up at the imperial court of Byzantium, chose as his last home a mausoleum which aesthetically followed the tradition of the late ancient imperial mausoleums but which however showed decorative elements "like a pincer" typical of the gota goldsmithery (Fig. 11). A further emblematic example is represented by the seal ring found in Tournai in the tomb of the king of the Franks Salii Childeric (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12 - Reproduction of the seal ring of Childerico I. Picture from Gallica, public domain

On this we have the name of the sovereign and his representation. The king is represented with typical elements of the Roman tradition, such as the lorica and the paludamentum, next to these, however, there are details of the Germanic sphere, in fact the sovereign has long hair, a privilege proper to the royal Salii dynasty, and the spear, a typical symbol of power among the Germanic peoples.

From this moment the iconographic, political and religious fusion between the Northern Barbarians and the Romans began, which will lead, as already mentioned, to the formation of the Roman-Barbarian kingdoms and to a first definition of what will become the European states in the future.

Bibliography

A. Barbero, Barbari. Immigrati, profughi, deportati nell’impero romano, Roma-Bari 2007.

R. Bianchi Bandinelli, Dall’ellenismo al medioevo, Roma 1978.

R. Bianchi Bandinelli, Roma. La fine dell’arte antica, Milano 1991 (ristampa dell’edizione Milano 1970).

J.-L. Brunaux, Sacrifices humains chez les Gaulois. Realites du sacrifice,realites archeologiques, in Le sacrifice humaine en Egypte et ailleurs. Textes reunis et presentes par J.-P. Albert et B. Midant-Reynes, Paris 2005, pp. 256-273.

P. Courcelle, Histoire litteraire des grandes invasions germaniques. Troisieme edition, augmentee et illustree, Paris 1964.

Y.-A. Dauge, Le Barbare. Recherches sur la conception romaine de la barbarie et de la civilisation (Collection Latomus, 176), Bruxelles 1981.

M. Durand-Lefebvre, Art gallo-romain et sculpture romane, Paris 1937.

S. Gasparri, Prima delle nazioni. Popoli, etnie e regni fra Antichita e Medioevo, Roma 1997.

P. Heather, I Goti, Genova 2005 (traduzione italiana dall’originale inglese The Goths, Oxford UK & Cambridge USA 1996).

P. Heather, La caduta dell’impero romano. Una nuova storia, Milano 2008 (traduzione italiana a cura di S. Cerchi dall’originale inglese The Fall of the Roman Empire. A new History, London 2005).

A. Hofeneder, Die Religion der Kelten in den antiken literarischen Zeugnissen. II. Von Cicero bis Florus, Wien 2008.

D. Lassandro, “Aedui, fratres populi Romani” (in margine ai Panegirici gallici), in Autocoscienza e rappresentazione dei popoli nell’Antichita, a cura di M. Sordi (Contributi dell’Istituto di Storia Antica dell’Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, 18), Milano 1992, pp. 261-265.

B. Luiselli, Il mito dell’origine troiana dei Galli, dei Franchi e degli Scandinavi, in Romanobarbarica 3 (1978), pp. 89-121.

B. Luiselli, Storia culturale dei rapporti tra mondo romano e mondo germanico, Roma 1992.

B. Luiselli, La formazione della cultura europea occidentale, Roma 2003.

M. McCormick, Vittoria eterna. Sovranita trionfale nella Tarda Antichita, a Bisanzio e nell’Occidente altomedioevale, Milano 1993 (traduzione italiana di G. Iamartino dall’originale inglese Eternal victory. Triumphal rulership in Late Antiquity, Byzantium and the Early Medieval West, Cambridge 1986).

S. Rinaldi Tufi, L’Occidente europeo e l’area danubiana, in Storia di Roma. III. L’eta tardoantica. 2. I luoghi e le culture, a cura di A. Schiavone, Torino 1993, pp. 899-913.

E. Sestan, Stato e nazione nell’Alto Medioevo. Ricerche sulle origini nazionali in Francia, Italia, Germania, Napoli 1952.

P. Sivonen, The Good and the Bad, the Civilised and the Barbaric: Images of the East in the Identities of Ausonius, Sidonius, and Sulpicius, in Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History, VIII, edited by C. Deroux (Collection Latomus, 239), Bruxelles 1997, pp. 417-440.

F. Stok, Fisiognomia e carattere delle popolazioni nordiche e germaniche nella cultura dell’eta romana, in Cultura classica e cultura germanica settentrionale. Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi. Universita di Macerata, Facolta di Lettere e Filosofia. Macerata-San Severino Marche, 2-4 maggio 1985, a cura di P. Janni, D. Poli e C. Santini, (Quaderni Linguistici e Filologici III, 1985 – Universita di Macerata), Macerata 1985, pp. 65-111.

H. Wolfram, Storia dei Goti, Roma 1985 (edizione italiana rivista e ampliata dall’autore a cura di M. Cesa sull’originale tedesco Geschichte der Goten, Munchen 1979).

H. Wolfram, The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 2005 (originally published as Das Reich und die Germanen, Berlin 1990, transl. by Th. Dunlap).

1 On the origin and developments of the theme of fraternitas between Aedui and Romans and fundamental B. Luiselli, Il mito dell’origine troiana dei Galli, dei Franchi e degli Scandinavi, in Romanobarbarica 3 (1978), 1978, pp. 89-103; vd. also B. Luiselli, Storia culturale dei rapporti tra mondo romano e mondo germanico, Roma 1992, pp. 642-646; finally cf. A. Hofeneder, Die Religion der Kelten in den antiken literarischen Zeugnissen. II. Von Cicero bis Florus, Wien 2008, pp. 291-295. For the recurrence of the theme in the panegyrics cf. D. Lassandro, “Aedui, fratres populi Romani” (in margine ai Panegirici gallici), in Autocoscienza e rappresentazione dei popoli nell’Antichita, edited by M. Sordi (Contributi dell’Istituto di Storia Antica dell’Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, 18), Milano 1992.

2 Tacitus never directly visited the lands and peoples he spoke of in his work and the information used for his writing was probably manifold: De Bello Gallico by Gaius Julius Caesar, the Geography of Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Posidonius, Aufidio Basso and interviews to merchants and soldiers.

3 Liudprandi Cremonensis, Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana, in ID., Antapodosis, Homelia Pascalis, Historia Ottonis, Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana, cura et studio P. Chiesa, Turnholti 1998 (Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio mediaevalis, 156), pp. 192-193, n. 12.


Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold near the Griffin Warrior

Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold

The family tombs are near the 2015 site of the 'Griffin Warrior,' a military leader buried with armor, weapons and jewelry.

A gold ring depicts bulls and barley, the first known representation of domesticated animals and agriculture in ancient Greece. Credits: UC Classics

Archaeologists with the University of Cincinnati have discovered two Bronze Age tombs containing a trove of engraved jewelry and artifacts that promise to unlock secrets about life in ancient Greece.

The UC archaeologists announced the discovery Tuesday in Greece.

Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, archaeologists in UC's classics department, found the two beehive-shaped tombs in Pylos, Greece, last year while investigating the area around the grave of an individual they have called the "Griffin Warrior," a Greek man whose final resting place they discovered nearby in 2015.

Like the Griffin Warrior's tomb, the princely tombs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea also contained a wealth of cultural artifacts and delicate jewelry that could help historians fill in gaps in our knowledge of early Greek civilization.

UC's team spent more than 18 months excavating and documenting the find. The tombs were littered with flakes of gold leaf that once papered the walls.

"Like with the Griffin Warrior grave, by the end of the first week we knew we had something that was really important," said Stocker, who supervised the excavation.

"It soon became clear to us that lightning had struck again," said Davis, head of UC's classics department.

Bronze Age Tombs Griffin Warrior Pylos
UC archaeologists discovered two large family tombs at Pylos, Greece, strewn with flakes of gold that once lined their walls. The excavation took more than 18 months. Credits: UC Classics

The Griffin Warrior is named for the mythological creature -- part eagle, part lion -- engraved on an ivory plaque in his tomb, which also contained armor, weaponry and gold jewelry. Among the priceless objects of art was an agate sealstone depicting mortal combat with such fine detail that Archaeology magazine hailed it as a "Bronze Age masterpiece."

Artifacts found in the princely tombs tell similar stories about life along the Mediterranean 3,500 years ago, Davis said. A gold ring depicted two bulls flanked by sheaves of grain, identified as barley by a paleobotanist who consulted on the project.

"It's an interesting scene of animal husbandry -- cattle mixed with grain production. It's the foundation of agriculture," Davis said. "As far as we know, it's the only representation of grain in the art of Crete or Minoan civilization."

UC archaeologists found a sealstone made from semiprecious carnelian in the family tombs at Pylos, Greece. The sealstone was engraved with two lionlike mythological figures called genii carrying serving vessels and incense burners facing each other over an altar and below a 16-pointed star. The other image is a putty cast of the sealstone. Credits: UC Classics

Like the grave of the Griffin Warrior, the two family tombs contained artwork emblazoned with mythological creatures. An agate sealstone featured two lion-like creatures called genii standing upright on clawed feet. They carry a serving vase and an incense burner, a tribute for the altar before them featuring a sprouting sapling between horns of consecration, Stocker said.

Above the genii is a 16-pointed star. The same 16-pointed star also appears on a bronze and gold artifact in the grave, she said.

"It's rare. There aren't many 16-pointed stars in Mycenaean iconography. The fact that we have two objects with 16 points in two different media (agate and gold) is noteworthy," Stocker said.

The genius motif appears elsewhere in the East during this period, she said.

"One problem is we don't have any writing from the Minoan or Mycenaean time that talks of their religion or explains the importance of their symbols," Stocker said.

UC's team also found a gold pendant featuring the likeness of the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

"Its discovery is particularly interesting in light of the role she played in Egypt as protectress of the dead," Davis said.

The identity of the Griffin Warrior is a matter for speculation. Stocker said the combination of armor, weapons and jewelry found in his tomb strongly indicate he had military and religious authority, likely as the king known in later Mycenaean times as a wanax.

Likewise, the princely tombs paint a picture of accumulated wealth and status, she said. They contained amber from the Baltic, amethyst from Egypt, imported carnelian and lots of gold. The tombs sit on a scenic vista overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the spot where the Palace of Nestor would later rise and fall to ruins.

"I think these are probably people who were very sophisticated for their time," she said. "They have come out of a place in history where there were few luxury items and imported goods. And all of a sudden at the time of the first tholos tombs, luxury items appear in Greece.

"You have this explosion of wealth. People are vying for power," she said. "It's the formative years that will give rise to the Classic Age of Greece."

The antiquities provide evidence that coastal Pylos was once an important destination for commerce and trade.

"If you look at a map, Pylos is a remote area now. You have to cross mountains to get here. Until recently, it hasn't even been on the tourist path," Stocker said. "But if you're coming by sea, the location makes more sense. It's on the way to Italy. What we're learning is that it's a much more central and important place on the Bronze Age trade route."

The princely tombs sit close to the palace of Nestor, a ruler mentioned in Homer's famous works "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." The palace was discovered in 1939 by the late UC Classics professor Carl Blegen. Blegen had wanted to excavate in the 1950s in the field where Davis and Stocker found the new tombs but could not get permission from the property owner to expand his investigation. The tombs would have to wait years for another UC team to make the startling discovery hidden beneath its grape vines.

Excavating the site was particularly arduous. With the excavation season looming, delays in procuring the site forced researchers to postpone plans to study the site first with ground-penetrating radar. Instead, Stocker and Davis relied on their experience and intuition to focus on one disturbed area.

"There were noticeable concentrations of rocks on the surface once we got rid of the vegetation," she said.

Those turned out to be the exposed covers of deep tombs, one plunging nearly 15 feet. The tombs were protected from the elements and potential thieves by an estimated 40,000 stones the size of watermelons.

The boulders had sat undisturbed for millennia where they had fallen when the domes of the tombs collapsed. And now 3,500 years later, UC's team had to remove each stone individually.

"It was like going back to the Mycenaean Period. They had placed them by hand in the walls of the tombs and we were taking them out by hand," Stocker said. "It was a lot of work."

At every step of the excavation, the researchers used photogrammetry and digital mapping to document the location and orientation of objects in the tomb. This is especially valuable because of the great number of artifacts that were recovered, Davis said.

"We can see all levels as we excavated them and relate them one to the other in three dimensions," he said. UC's team will continue working at Pylos for at least the next two years while they and other researchers around the world unravel mysteries contained in the artifacts.

"It has been 50 years since any substantial tombs of this sort have been found at any Bronze Age palatial site. That makes this extraordinary," Davis said.

 

Press release from the University of Cincinnati, by Michael Miller.


Levänluhta jewellery links Finland to a European exchange network

Levänluhta jewellery links Finland to a European exchange network

Levänluhta
Archaeological findings of Levänluhta in the Finnish National Museum's exhibition. In the front arm rings and necklaces found from the burial site, made out of copper alloy. Credit: Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä

The Levänluhta water burial site, dating back to the Iron Age (300-800 CE), is one of Finland's most famous archaeological sites. Nearly one hundred individuals, mainly women or children, were buried in a lake located at Isokyrö in SW Finland, during the Iron Age. Some of the deceased were accompanied by arm rings and necklaces made out of copper alloy, bronze or brass.

Style of jewellery domestic but material from abroad

"The origin of the metals used in these pieces of jewellery was determined on the basis of the objects' geochemical and lead isotope compositions. The jewellery of the deceased is stylistically typical Finnish Iron Age jewellery, making it probable that they were cast in local workshops. However, the metals used to make these objects are unlikely to be originally from the region, since copper ores had not yet been discovered here during the Iron Age," says Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä, a postdoctoral researcher.

Up to now, archaeologists have assumed that copper used in the Iron Age came mainly from the copper ores discovered in southern Scandinavia. However, this interpretation has in recent years been called into question, since the copper found in archaeological metal discoveries in Sweden has also been determined to be imported.

In a study conducted in collaboration between archaeologists at the University of Helsinki and the Geological Survey of Finland, the origin of the bronze and brass jewellery found at Levänluhta was investigated by comparing their geochemical composition and lead isotope ratios to known copper ores in Finland, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe. The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Copper tracks lead to southern Europe

"The results demonstrate that the copper used in the objects was not from Finland or the nearby regions; rather, it has travelled to Finland along extensive exchange networks, most likely from southern Europe," says Holmqvist-Sipilä.

Based on the lead isotope ratios, the copper in the objects has its origins in the copper ores found in Greece and Bulgaria. These regions produced a large quantity of copper in the Bronze and Iron Age, which spread around Europe as various object forms, distributed as presents, loot and merchandise. Metals were also recycled by melting old objects into raw material for new casts. It may be possible that metals that ended up in Finland during the Bronze Age were recycled in the Levänluhta region.

The findings of this project, funded by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation, demonstrate that products of the copper exchange network of continental Europe also reached Finland across the Baltic Sea, thus making it possible to link the region with the extensive copper exchange system known to have extended throughout Europe. The results also illustrate the temporally and technologically multi-layered nature of prehistoric metal artefacts: raw materials found their way here through a number of hands, most likely over a long period of time and across very great distances. In domestic artisan workshops, these metals of international origin were manufactured into pieces of jewellery in domestic Iron Age fashion, perhaps embodying the local identity and place of residence of the bearer.

 

Press release from the University of Helsinki


Drinking, feasting and dietary habits of Early Celts in Burgundy

Archaeology -- what the Celts drank

drinking Celts
Greek drinking cup from the Early Celtic princely burial mound Kleinaspergle. This vessel is similar to those whose pottery fragments were found in the Celtic settlement on the Mont Lassois. Credit: Württemberg State Museum, P. Frankenstein / H. Zwietasch.

Research carried out by an international team led by scientists from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich and the University of Tübingen reveals aspects of the drinking and dietary habits of the Celts, who lived in Central Europe in the first millennium BCE.

The authors of the new study analyzed 99 ceramic drinking vessels, storage and transport jars recovered during excavations at Mont Lassois in Burgundy. This was the site of a fortified 'princely' settlement of the Early Celts. The finds included pottery and bronze vessels that had been imported from Greece around 500 BCE. "This was a period of rapid change, during which vessels made in Greece and Italy reached the region north of the Alps in large numbers for the first time. It has generally been assumed that this indicates that the Celts began to imitate the Mediterranean lifestyle, and that only the elite were in a position to drink Mediterranean wine during their banquets," says LMU archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer, who led the project. "Our analyses confirm that they indeed consumed imported wines, but they also drank local beer from the Greek drinking bowls. In other words, the Celts did not simply adopt foreign traditions in their original form. Instead, they used the imported vessels and products in their own ways and for their own purposes. Moreover, the consumption of imported wine was apparently not confined to the upper echelons of society. Craftsmen too had access to wine, and the evidence suggests that they possibly used it for cooking, while the elites quaffed it in the course of their drinking parties. The study shows that intercultural contact is a dynamic process and demonstrates how easy it is for unfamiliar vessels to serve new functions and acquire new meanings."

At the University of Tübingen, Maxime Rageot analyses organic residues found in pottery from Mont Lassois. Credit: Victor S. Brigola

Chemical analysis of the food residues absorbed into the ancient pots now makes it possible to determine what people ate and drank thousands of years ago. The group of authors based at the University of Tübingen analyzed these chemical fingerprints in the material from Mont Lassois. "We identified characteristic components of olive oil and milk, imported wine and local alcoholic beverages, as well as traces of millet and beeswax," says Maxime Rageot, who performed the chemical analyses in Tübingen. "These findings show that - in addition to wine - beers brewed from millet and barley were consumed on festive or ritual occasions." His colleague Cynthianne Spiteri adds: "We are delighted to have definitively solved the old problem of whether or not the early Celts north of the Alps adopted Mediterranean drinking customs. - They did indeed, but they did so in a creative fashion!"

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The results of the study, which forms part of the BEFIM project (Meanings and Functions of Mediterranean Imports in Early Iron Age Central Europe), have just been published in the online journal PLOS ONE. The collaborative investigation was carried out by researchers from LMU Munich, the University of Tübingen, the Württemberg State Museum, the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege beim Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart, the University of Zürich and the University of Burgundy.

 

Press release from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

 

Early Celts in Burgundy appropriated Mediterranean products and feasting practices

Organic residue analysis of imported Mediterranean pottery fragments detects imported olive oil and wine as well as local beers

Selection of the Early Celtic vessels held in the archive of the Württemberg State Museum. Credit: Victor S. Brigola, CC-BY

Early Celts in eastern France imported Mediterranean pottery, as well as olive oil and wine, and may have appropriated Mediterranean feasting practices, according to a study published June 19, 2019 in PLOS ONE, by Maxime Rageot from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and the University of Tübingen, and colleagues.

Hundreds of fragments of imported Mediterranean pottery have been excavated from the Early Celtic hillfort site of Vix-Mont Lassois in Burgundy, France. This study is the first to investigate the impact of these Mediterranean imports and of Mediterranean feasting/consumption practices on Early Celtic culture (7th - 5th century BC), using molecular organic residue analysis techniques. The authors performed gas chromatography and GC-mass spectrometry analyses on organic residues extracted from 99 ceramic fragments found at Vix-Mont Lassois: some from 16 vessels imported from the Mediterranean and some from locally produced vessels from different contexts (elite, artisan, ritual, and military).

The results showed that the imported vessels were not only used for wine drinking as an appropriation of Mediterranean feasting practices, but also to drink local beers spiced with pine resins, in what appears to be an intercultural adaptation. Additional home-grown beverages were also found in local pottery, including what may have been millet-based beer, probably consumed only by low-status individuals, and barley-based beer and birch-derived beverages, which seemed to be consumed by high-status individuals. Local pine resins and plant oils were also identified. Beeswax was present in around 50% of the local pottery vessels, possibly indicating that mead was a popular fermented beverage or that the Early Celts liked to sweeten their beverages with honey.

The authors note that common foods such as wheat, barley and rye might have been present in the vessels but could not be detected by their analysis centuries later. Despite this limitation, this study sheds new light on the role of imported Mediterranean food and drink in helping shape Early Celtic feasting practices and demonstrates the potential of this type of molecular analysis also for other archaeological sites.

The authors add: "The Celts in the Early Iron Age did not just drink imported Greek wine from their imported Greek pottery. They also used the foreign vessels in their own way for drinking different kinds of local beer, as organic residue analysis of ca. 100 Early Iron Age local and Mediterranean drinking vessels from Mont Lassois (France) shows."

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Citation: Rageot M, Mötsch A, Schorer B, Bardel D, Winkler A, Sacchetti F, et al. (2019) New insights into Early Celtic consumption practices: Organic residue analyses of local and imported pottery from Vix-Mont Lassois. PLoS ONE 14(6): e0218001. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218001

Funding: MR research was funded by the Deutsches Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (Federal Minstry of Education and Research). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

 

Press release from the Public Library of Science


Francavilla Marittima Calabria University of Basel Cultures in contact

An exhibition presents 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima

Cultures in Contact - An exhibition presents 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima

Francavilla Marittima Calabria University of Basel Cultures in contact
Foreign lifestyle and local tradition: The finds from a male tomb of Francavilla Marittima, Calabria, testify to the adoption of Greek drinking and eating habits by the Italian elites in the 8th century BC. The large clay pot was used for mixing wine and water, the bronze kettle (right) for cooking meat. The iron ax and the bronze fibulae identify the deceased as a member of the local upper class. Photo: © Victor Brigola, Stuttgart.

More than 30 ancient graves have been uncovered by archaeologists and students of the University of Basel as part of an educational excavation in southern Italy. The graves date from a time when the first Greeks and Orientals arrived in the region about 3000 years ago and document the cultural exchange with the local population. The results and methods of the research project will now be presented in an exhibition at the University Library of Basel, which opens on 12 April 2019.

Even in ancient times, the south of Italy was a hub for migration. The Iron Age settlement of Francavilla Marittima (ca. 800-700 BC) played a key role as a contact point between the local population and traders and colonists from Greece and the Near East.

Since 2009, the Basel project has been researching the burial site of this settlement and has uncovered 33 graves of women, men, and children to date. Grave goods such as vessels, figurines, jewelry, and weapons offer a wealth of information about the lifestyle of the local elite and their reaction to the arrival of colonists.

Productive cultural exchange

“Initially, we suspected strong differences between the locals and the colonists,” states the archaeologist Prof. Martin Guggisberg, who has been leading the excavation. “After 10 years of research, however, we see the relationship in a new light: not confrontation and opposition determined the picture, but dynamic processes of cultural transformation that led to the gradual establishment of a new, Greek order from around 700 BC onwards.

The research team discovered evidence for the intertwining of the traditional and the new in the tomb of a local ruler. Among his grave goods were different sorts of vessels and bowls that point to Greece and prove the adoption of new drinking and cultural practices. By contrast, his inhumation in fetal position underlines his adherence to the local tradition.

Iron swords buried in plaster coat

Since the swords were not well preserved, they had to be retrieved in a plaster coat. They were then x-rayed with a computer tomograph in the local hospital.

Of special importance is also the discovery of three iron swords. They belong to the oldest documents of this new weapon type in Italy and document the penetration of new fighting techniques from the East. Since the swords were very badly preserved, the research team first used a plaster coat and then digital analysis methods to reconstruct them graphically and in 3D print.

The swords in the computer tomograph.
One sword, three views: the found swords belong to the oldest documents of this new weapon type in Italy. Since the metal in the ground was corroded, the researchers used digital analysis methods, which made it possible to "print" one of the swords three-dimensionally and reconstruct it graphically.

From excavation to exhibition

Over the years, more than 70 students participated in the teaching excavation in Francavilla Marittima, learning how to use pickaxes, trowels, and brushes as well as the latest surveying technology and digital documentation methods. The students conceived the exhibition “Cultures in Contact” under the guidance of Atelier Degen+Meili, an exhibition consultancy based in Basel. The result of the collaboration is a presentation that not only makes visible the cultural contacts at the time but also presents the working methods of the project.

Prof. Dr. Martin Guggisberg from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Basel will introduce the exhibition on 12 April 2019 at 5.30 pm. Further speakers will be Prof. Dr. Thomas Grob, Vice President of the University of Basel, Dr. Pietro Maria Paolucci, Italian Consul in Basel, as well as Dr. Franco Bettarini, Mayor of Francavilla Marittima.

Francavilla Marittima: Basel excavation and exhibition

Cultures in Contact – 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima, University Library Basel, Schönbeinstrasse 18-20 (1st floor), Basel. The exhibition runs until 9 June 2019. Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 8 am – 10.30 pm, Saturday 9 am – 7 pm, free admission. On 15 May 2019, 6.15 p.m., there will be a theme evening with Prof. Martin Guggisberg. Public guided tours: 16 April and 15 May 2019, at 6.15 pm.

The Francavilla Marittima project is the result of a successful cultural collaboration between Switzerland and Italy. It has received support from various partner institutions, including the Archaeological Soil Research of the Canton of Basel-Stadt, the Department of Prehistoric and Scientific Archaeology of the University of Basel, and the Institute of Forensic Medicine of the University of Bern, the Max Planck Institute for Human History, Jena, the Museo Nazionale Archeologico della Sibaritide, the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Catanzaro, Cosenza e Crotone, the Municipality of Francavilla Marittima and the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali of the Italian State. The excavations are supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Voluntary Academic Society of Basel, the Max Geldner Foundation and the University of Basel.

 

 

Press release from the University of Basel/Universität Basel


Saffron comes from Attica - origin of the saffron crocus traced back to Greece

Saffron comes from Attica - origin of the saffron crocus traced back to Greece

Crocus cartwrightianus. Credit: Frank Blattner/IPK

The origin of C. sativus has long been the subject of speculation and research, as this knowledge would enable breeders to introduce genetic diversity into the otherwise genetically uniform plant species. Two new studies have now shown that the saffron crocus originated from a Greek ancestor.

Since ancient times, saffron has been giving dishes a golden-yellow hue and an aromatic flavour. The use of the stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) is depicted in frescos from Crete and Santorini, which are as old as 3600 years. Nowadays, the valuable plant is mainly cultivated in Iran accounting for more than 90% of the saffron production. Due to its hardiness, small batches of the saffron crocus are even grown and harvested in more unlikely countries such as Switzerland and Germany. Possibly partially due to its widespread agricultural adoption, the origin of saffron has until recently been a subject of speculation. Now, two independent studies have been able to trace the roots of C. sativus back to Greece.

saffron Attica Greece Athens Crocus sativus
Map providing the distribution area of Crocus cartwrightianus (dashed line). In red the Attica region is depicted where the saffron crocus originated. Credit: Frank Blattner

The saffron crocus is a triploid and male-sterile plant. This means that the plant can only be propagated vegetatively. In this case, parts of the corms (bulb-like structures of the stem) of the saffron plants are broken off and then these daughter-corms are used to grow new adult plants. A consequence of this form of reproduction is that there is no room for improving saffron quality by crossing different cultivars. Thus all modern saffron plants are genetically nearly identical. Knowing the origin, in particular the originating plant species, would enable saffron breeders to use new genotypes to broaden the diversity of the saffron crocus.

Researchers of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK Gatersleben) decided to tackle the mystery of saffron's origin, by comparing molecular markers of wild crocus species with those of our cultivated saffron crocus. In the research group of Frank Blattner, plant material was obtained through sample-collecting excursions from native stands of all relevant species. Through the analyses of genome-wide single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and the investigation of the chloroplast genomes of the different crocus species, the researchers were able to pinpoint the species with the highest genetic similarity to C. sativus. As such, the wild crocus species C. cartwrightianus from Greece was identified as the sole progenitor of the modern saffron plant, and the area in the vicinity of the Greek capital Athens as the region where it evolved.

C. cartwrightianus had already been postulated as a possible progenitor of C. sativus, however the high intra-specific genetic diversity present in C. cartwrightianus had led to unclear results during previous investigations. Now, in the IPK-study, an unambiguous total of 99.3% of the alleles of C. sativus could be recovered in C. cartwrightianus.

These results were confirmed by an independent complementary study performed by researchers at TU Dresden. The Dresden scientists in Thomas Schmidt's group performed comparative chromosome analysis with fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) of different crocus species, and could also demonstrate that C. sativus resulted from the fusion of the genomes of two C. cartwrightianus plants, an event called "autopolyploidisation".

A slight surprise for all of the involved researchers was that the main growing regions for saffron are clearly located outside the distribution area of its progenitor C. cartwrightianus, with C. sativus prospering in drier regions and at higher elevations. They suspect that the explanation to this also lies within the origin story of saffron - it was probably the genome-fusing autopolyploidisation event that led to ecological shift of saffron, away from the habitats in the Mediterranean vegetation zone of Greece.

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Summary

  • Saffron, the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), is the most expensive spice worldwide. The male-sterile triploid plant has been propagated vegetatively for at least 3600 years, but the origin of the saffron crocus have long been subject of speculation.
  • A study analysing the chloroplast genomes and genome-wide DNA polymorphisms in crocus species was performed at the IPK Gatersleben. It shows that saffron evolved in Attica, Greece, through the combination of two different genotypes of the wild crocus C. cartwrightianus. The findings are supported by a recent independent study performed at TU Dresden.
  • This clarification of the parent species will probably enable plant breeder to overcome the low genetic diversity of the saffron crocus by creating new saffron genotypes with C. cartwrightianus individuals.
  • Studies available through https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2019.03.022 and https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.15715.

 

 

Press release from Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK Gatersleben)

 

 


Cambridge University Cambridge Digital LIbrary Heidelberg University medieval manuscripts

Cambridge and Heidelberg announce major project to digitise treasured medieval manuscripts

Cambridge and Heidelberg announce major project to digitise treasured medieval manuscripts

Hundreds of medieval and early modern Greek manuscripts – including classical texts and some of the most important treatises on religion, mathematics, history, drama and philosophy – are to be digitised and made available to anyone with access to the internet.

In a major collaboration announced today (March 28), Cambridge University Library, 12 Cambridge colleges, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Heidelberg University Library and the Vatican Library have come together as part of a two-year £1.6m project, funded by the Polonsky Foundation, to digitise more than 800 medieval manuscripts.

The project between two of Europe’s oldest universities, both renowned for their medieval collections, will see the digitisation of every medieval Greek manuscript in Cambridge and all those belonging to the Bibliotheca Palatina collection, split between Heidelberg and the Vatican. It will provide a unique insight into the chronological range of Greek manuscript culture, from the early Christian period to the early modern.

Dr Suzanne Paul, Keeper of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts at Cambridge University Library, said: “The Cambridge and Heidelberg collections bear witness to the enduring legacy of Greek culture – classical and Byzantine – and the lasting importance of Greek scholarship.

“The works of Homer and Plato were copied and recopied throughout the medieval period and the early biblical and liturgical manuscripts are profoundly important for our understanding of a Christian culture based on the written word.

“These multilingual, multicultural, multifarious works, that cross borders, disciplines and the centuries, testify to a deep scholarly engagement with Greek texts and Greek culture that both universities are committed to upholding.”

Once digitised, the Cambridge manuscripts will join the works of Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking and Alfred Lord Tennyson on the Cambridge Digital Library. Since its launch in 2010 – with the digitisation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica making headlines around the world – the treasures of Cambridge’s Digital Library have been accessed more than 13.5 million times.

Dr Veit Probst, Director of Heidelberg University Library, said: “Numerous discoveries await. We still lack detailed knowledge about the production and provenance of these books, about the identities and activities of their scribes, their artists and their owners – and have yet to uncover how they were studied and used, both during the medieval period and in the centuries beyond. The meanings of the annotations and marginalia in the original manuscripts have yet to be teased apart. From such threads, a rich tapestry of Greek scholarship will be woven.”

With more than 38,000 volumes digitised to date, Heidelberg’s Digital Library has been visited by scholars and members of the public in 169 countries, outlining the global appetite for digital access to collections which would be impossible for most to access directly.

The current status of these collections presents significant challenges to scholars both in terms of cataloguing and conservation, with the medieval bindings of many manuscripts in a fragile state. The current catalogues for them date from the nineteenth century; many of those for the Cambridge manuscripts were written by the scholar M.R. James, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, but best known for his ghost stories which remain popular to this day.
Of the Cambridge Greek manuscripts, around 210 are held at the University Library, 140 at Trinity College, and a further 60 spread across 11 other colleges and the Fitzwilliam Museum. Of the Bibliotheca Palatina Greek manuscripts, 29 are in Heidelberg and 403 are in the Vatican Library, having been transferred there from Germany as a spoil of war in 1623.

Dr Jessica Gardner, Cambridge University Librarian, said: “Opening up some of the most important Greek medieval manuscripts to not just scholars, but the widest possible audience, is another key milestone towards our goal of sharing Cambridge’s treasured collections with the world.

“I would like us to get to the stage where the University’s entire medieval collections are digitised. This project is testament to what can be achieved when Cambridge’s libraries, colleges and museums work in tandem – while at the same time building ever-closer relationships with a distinguished European research library like our own.”

Dr Leonard S. Polonsky CBE, Founding Chairman, The Polonsky Foundation said:“Our Foundation is proud to support this important collaboration between the ancient universities of Cambridge and Heidelberg, which represents a significant development for both institutions. For Heidelberg the project will complete the virtual reconstruction of the Palatine Library that is being carried out with the Vatican Library.

“For Cambridge it is the first phase of a collaboration among the University Library, Cambridge colleges and the Fitzwilliam Museum to digitise their collections of Western medieval manuscripts. Benefiting from the extraordinary opportunities afforded by digitisation, the project brings together the treasures of these great institutions and makes them available to researchers and the wider public in innovative and attractive ways."

Cambridge University Cambridge Digital LIbrary Heidelberg University medieval manuscriptsPress release from Cambridge University, by Stuart Roberts