Category: Research

Who Doesn’t Love a Plague Pit? (most people except for me!)

Sorry for my radio silence on this blog recently, but in my defence I have a stack of awesome new content because I was in Europe for research and fieldwork. So this post is dedicated to my first dig of the 2015 season – Thornton Abbey!

The Thornton Abbey Project has been running for several seasons now and is a field school for my beloved University of Sheffield. However you can also score yourself a spot on the excavations upon application via their website, and its always a very multinational excavation. This season there were Brits, Canadians, Americans, Hungarians, Indians, Francophones, Icelanders and of course… Australians! To read more about the Thornton Abbey project click here. The project leader is Dr Hugh Willmott from Sheffield, a great man, who begun this project to find the post-medieval manor theoretically built in the grounds by one of the families who owned it post-dissolution… the manor is yet to be found, sorry Hugh!


the fortified gatehouse of the abbey

Thornton Abbey is in “rural” (what passes for rural in the UK) Lincolnshire and what is left of the Abbey is open to the public as an English Heritage run site with the surrounding paddocks privately owned and tenant farmed. We were digging in the fields surrounding the Abbey, where the older church turned Abbey Hospital (or so we think) were located and where some other associated buildings once stood – very much a case of finding a series of small walls (youtube clip).


see… a series of…


… not so small walls…

Here is my extremely brief run down of the site’s history:

  • Some early Anglo-Saxon activity and possibly Roman wares found, not too sure about intervening years until the Norman period (bad Anglo-Saxonist that I am…)
  • Priory founded on the site in 1139 by William le Gros, Count of Aumale, Augustinian/black canon house
  • 1148 raised to status of abbey
  • 1180 le Gros buried at Thornton
  • 1274 patronage passed to the Crown
  • 13th century much of the building works are in progress
  • 1382-1389 fortification of the gatehouse, likely due to the peasants’ rising
  • Survived the dissolution because it became a secular college 1540s under Henry VIII
  • Closed in 1547 as a training institution and went into private ownership

NOW TO THE PLAGUE PIT! Due to the sensitivity of working with human remains I cannot put any of my photos of the skeletal material up here, so for anyone looking for cool skelly pics, sorry. You’ll just have to use your imaginations.

Next to what the team believe is the monastery’s hospital lies a quite large cemetery. This is not a typical high-medieval, nicely laid out cemetery but, we think, at some point, a mass grave for victims of the plague. Which, if I may say so as a funerary archaeologist is PRETTY DAMNED COOL! From my understanding it wasn’t really a massive pit of bodies per se, a little more organised than that, but by no means the individualised burials of people who have died separated by time.


Trench M aka the Plague Pit, where I was most of the dig, sans skeletons

Needless to say, coming from an Australian background where archaeological human remains are a bit taboo (for multiple reasons) I was very keen to excavate the graves. By the time I joined the dig it was the last week of the season, and it appeared that they were down to lifting the last few graves (this earliest phase appears to not be from the plague period as the individuals are in individually cut simple graves with a mixture of men, women and children – suggesting a lay population). So myself and a colleague were set to levelling some of the areas between graves to make the section nice for photography and recording… until we hit another skeleton that was not meant to be there… rude! This set the tone for the rest of the week with more and more skeletons popping up around the old church/hospital building, which is a bit inconvenient when you need to shut the trenches down for the season, but for us students it was heaven.

If I remember correctly they have lifted over 200 skeletons from the site for careful storage and research back at the osteology labs in Sheffield. It will be a great teaching and research collection, I am really looking forward to seeing what work comes out of it.

Sadly I don’t think I can give you much more detail than that, you’ll have to wait for them to publish findings or read the dig’s blog. What I can give you more info on is the plague and how it does (or does not) affect the human body and then the skeleton. Finally a medieval use for my science degree!

  • The plague or its most famous outbreak – The Black Death was at its peak in Europe c. 1347-1350 (give or take) and killed somewhere in the region of 30-60% of Europe’s population
  • Most forms of plague are bacterial and only affect the soft tissues of the body, and pretty horrifically at that. The Black Death is caused by a bacillus bacteria called Yersinia pestis
  • Did you know that China and other parts of the world are having resurgences of plague? Read more here
  • Whilst the bacteria has devastating affects on the body it rarely if ever leaves identifiable traces on the bone, therefore our only hint as archaeologist is usually the circumstances of the burial i.e. mass graves, although carbon dating to the 14th century does also help clinch it if its available
  • However if you are lucky and have good preservation sometimes you can get aDNA (ancient DNA), but not of the people, of the bacteria, and this is the best diagnostic tool of all. Often such bacterial indicators of health will be trapped in dental calculus (the oh so lovely plaque etc. build up on teeth that happens in past populations when brushing your teeth wasn’t a done thing)
  • My colleagues who work on aDNA, palaeopathology and related fields have discovered through aDNA research that there were actually several strains of plaque in the middle ages, and are studying the evolution of modern plague. Some of the research suggests that it hasn’t necessarily evolved too much… an outbreak in Madagascar in 2013 proved to be almost identical to that found in 14th century skeletons in London, clearly it is still as dangerous as ever and doesn’t need to evolve too much.

If it goes ahead in future years I can thoroughly recommend taking part, its a fun, friendly atmosphere and if you’re keen you can try your hand at not just excavation but geophysics, trench recording, find processing and much more.

And now for some more pretty pictures of the site and the dig in progress:


Archaeologists like to be silly too sometimes… being cool benedictine style!

IMG_1638 IMG_1627 IMG_1626IMG_1507


Story time with Amy: Crapocalypse on the Ark!

God said he'd make them all constipated

Artist unknown

Gather round, my children, and be honest with Aunty Amy: who among you has not wondered what happened to all the poop on Noah’s ark?

Well, my dears, Aunty Amy can assure you: there is no snigger-inducing theological or biblical-historical question you can ask that has not already been considered by a serious medieval author. So make yourselves comfortable – you, little Suzie, stop pinching poor Johnny; and you there, give Katie her teddy back. Right, everyone comfortable?

Let’s begin.

The story of the CRAPOCALYPSE ON THE ARK. The very true, absolutely historical story of the CRAPOCALYPSE ON THE ARK, which was written down by Matthew Paris, and was told to him by a bloke who had it told to him by a fella who had it told to him by some guy who heard it from Mohammed, and he knew about it because it was a story Jesus told. No, wait, Jesus didn’t tell it: he thought no one would believe him, so he resurrected Japeth son of Noah from a clump of mud, and he told all the people about the CRAPOCALYPSE ON THE ARK.

So you can see it’s a very reliable, utterly historical story, the story of the CRAPOCALYPSE ON THE ARK.

Once upon a time, it rained for forty days and forty nights, and Noah and all his family including Japeth (henceforth, Noah et al) and all the animals were on the ark floating around aimlessly on the flood. They had plenty of food with them, stored down one side of the ark; and all the animals lived down the other side.

But Poop emoji (reportedly actually ice cream)after a while, they started to have a problem. When you put food into animals, what comes out? That’s right, POOP. And if you keep putting food into animals, what keeps happening?


Soon the Ark began to tilt to one side – there wasn’t enough grain on the grain side, and too much poop on the animal side! They were facing a disaster! A Crapocalypse! A veritable Cacastrophe!

So Noah et al did what any sensible sailor would do: shovelled the poop overboard and redistributed the cargo. No, wait, they didn’t. They did what good Old Testament faithful do: they prayed and made sacrifices. And God gave them very sensible, sound advice. Always trust God with your nautical problems.

Camel poop: dry enough to start fires with; contains helpful bacteria

Camel poop: dry enough to start fires with; contains helpful bacteria

God said unto them: build an altar made of mixed camel and human poop, and make sacrifices upon it, and help will come. So they did. They built an altar out of poop and made sacrifices upon it.

And when they had finished making sacrifices, the altar exploded and out of it sprung a sow, who proceeded to scatter poop everywhere – most usefully, off the Ark.

Yay! No more poopocalypse!

But now Noah et al have a different problem: they have a rampaging sow. And sows are unclean animals. Should they throw it overboard? No, they decide: this sow is a gift from God. Our own special and blessed crap-destroying sow.

This was a mistake. God punished them. He sent them a MOUSEPOCALYPSE: the sow sneezed out mice, and the mice ran all over the ark eating all the grain, and the beams of the boat, and all the sailing tack.

Noah et al whined to God that this was unfair, and they were very sorry about keeping the sow, and could he make the mice go away please.

So God gave them very sensible advice: get a hammer, and go into the animal pens, and find the lion. Hit the lion on the head with the hammer – but hit him gently – and help will come. So Noah et al got a hammer, and went and hit the lion gently on the head with the hammer.

And the lion vomited up a herd of cats, who ate all the mice.

And they all lived happily ever after.

The Ark is no match for Schroedinger's Cat

The Ark is no match for Schroedinger’s Cat

Yes, Suzie? What do you mean, what happened to the lion? I don’t know what happened to the lion. He lived happily ever after, I guess.

Katie? No, I don’t know what happened to the sow. I guess they threw her overboard, because look what happened last time they didn’t throw her overboard.

The cats? Johnny wants to know about the cats. Well, I can tell you what happened to the cats: absolutely nothing, because cats are masters unto themselves.
Is that it? Everybody happy now?

Oh-ho, the sceptic in the back doesn’t think a sow can be formed out of mixed camel and human dung! Well, my precious little sceptic, Matthew Paris thought about the Ark Poop Problem before you did, and he thought of that too. It is perfectly possible and logical – because God would only perform logical miracles, of course – to form a sow out of mixed human and camel dung. Pigs, as everyone knows, are human on the inside and quadruped on the outside, so basically half human and half camel. And they love dung. Perfect sense.

And before you get any more questions in your little head: dung is basically earth, and everyone knows mice live in holes in the earth, so there were mice inside the sow. And lions, lions vomit cats all the time, because cats are basically tiny lions.

Logic. You can’t argue with it.

I found this story in an English translation of excerpts from the Chronica Majora, in Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine Sept 1820 (I think?), with no translator attribution that I can find. It’s on page 609 in this googlebooks file. I was looking for sow symbolism / visions / analogies to go with and explain the one in the Grisandolus Episode of the Suite Merlin (English). Anyone who knows of sows specifically associated with female lust and/or bad queens, gimme a shout.

I really like the practical logic gone into this story. In John Pryor’s crusade history classes in undergrad we spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about his favourite conundrum at the time, ‘Why was it possible to transport horses by ship to the siege of Acre but it hadn’t been before that?’, and a classmate who owned a horse gave him his very favourite research paper ever: a systematic calculation of how much horse poo would weigh, balanced against how much the horse ate and drank, and calculations as to whether it would be more efficient to keep the poop as ballast or take extra barrels to fill with water and replace the grain-weight.

Of course, by practical logic, I mean someone’s thought about poop, but not about ships or ballast. Or mucking out animal stalls. So only marginally practical logic.

Thinking about digital scholarly editions

Once I decided to produce an edition for my PhD thesis, I had the idea of creating a digital edition. Now I’m faced with some practical questions: what is a digital edition? How is it different from a traditional, printed edition? Why should I do this instead of a print edition? How are will I create it? How do I want it to look?

In a very timely coincidence the digital humanities conference 2015 was held in Sydney (first time ever in Australia) at the University of Western Sydney during the first week of July. The conference was absolutely fantastic and exposed me to current practices in the digital humanities and ideas on how to approach my project.

I attended a great pre-conference workshop, ‘An Introduction to Digital Manuscripts,’ run by Elena Pierazzo and Peter A. Stokes which was a very shortened version of  the Medieval and Modern Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age camp, run through DiXiT, who also sponsored the workshop. The workshop was a quick introduction to digital editing, creating digital editions using TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) and XML, and manipulating manuscript images. In the course of the workshop Elena addressed the question of what a digital scholarly edition is. She quoted Patrick Sahle’s explanation of the distinction between a digital and digitised edition, which I quote below.

Definition of “digital scholarly edition”

My working definition is “Edition ist die erschließende Wiedergabe historischer Dokumente” which cannot be translated into English straight. “A scholarly edition is the critical representation of historical documents” would be a fair approximation. Here we have three argument places:

  1. “historical documents”: editing is concerned with documents which are already there. In this wide sense of “historical” the definition includes documents relevant for all subjects, history as well as literature or philosophy. Scholarly editing goes back to and starts from existing documents. To edit (to publish) a new document (which doesn’t refer to something preexisting) is not scholarly editing.
  2. “representation”: covers (abstract) representation as well as presentation (reproduction). As I use to say: transmedialization (representation by data) and medialization (presentation by media). Publishing descriptive data (e.g. metadata) without reproduction is not critical editing. A catalogue, a database, a calendar is not an edition.
  3. “critical / scholarly” (erschlieend): reproduction of documents without critical examination is not scholarly editing. A facsimile is not a scholarly edition.

That’s a wide definition of what “scholarly editing” is. But what is “digital scholarly editing”? Digital scholarly editions are not just scholarly editions in digital media. I distinguish between digital and digitized. A digitized print edition is not a “digital edition” in the strict sense used here. A digital edition can not be printed without a loss of information and/or functionality. The digital edition is guided by a different paradigm. If the paradigm of an edition is limited to the two-dimensional space of the “page” and to typographic means of information representation, than it’s not a digital edition. – Patrick Sahle

Now that I’ve worked out what a digital edition is, the next question is why create one instead of a traditional print edition? For me, there are a few advantages digital editions have over print or even digitised versions. Digital editions can have more features such as an interactive gloss and links between parts of the text; since they are not restricted by the cost of print you can include manuscript images (depending on copyright) and perhaps other sources, e.g. Latin sources for vernacular texts. There is also potential for greater access and a wider readership than print editions, especially if it is open access – of course scholarly editions are only ever going to have limited readership no matter how accessible the text is. Joan Grenier-Winther mentions some other benefits of electronic editions including greater access to the text for readers, since they can access facsimiles of all relevant manuscripts and verify the editorial transcriptions; and in the cases where there are multiple manuscript witnesses readers can be presented with all of them.*

Of course there are problems with digital editions, as there are with all formats. Gurpreet Singh from the University of Lethbridge, Canada discussed some of these problems in his paper (presented on behalf of the other collaborators as well) ‘The Old Familiar Faces: on the consumption of Digital Scholarship’ at Digital Humanities 2015 conference. Singh referred to Dorothy Porter’s 2013 essay, where she discussed why digital editions were not being used and concluded that the problem is the editions themselves. Porter argues that they are not properly understood and Peter Robinson [I think this is the paper they were referring to] that they are not revolutionary enough. My understanding Robinson’s problem is that if the digital edition is basically the same as the print edition – then why would you bother with the digital edition? I think this related back to the difference between digitised editions and digital editions: digital editions should be radically different from print editions. Singh et al used editions of Cædmon’s Hymn as a case study and found that digital editions weren’t used as much as print ones for a few reasons including how easy it is to access the edition. During questions, Singh acknowledged that some digital editions weren’t used because they were released on CD-ROM which didn’t really catch on and that there is an old and existing problem of scholars not citing newer scholarly editions.

Another area I am unsure about is publication: obviously a goal for most PhD candidates is to publish a monograph from their thesis but I am not sure how I would be able to do that with a traditional publisher since I plan on creating a web-based interface for my edition. Though this is really just a minor concern.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that preparing a digital edition greatly increases my workload. Not only do I need to do the textual scholarship and translating work, but also the programming and digital humanities side of it. I also don’t know whether that programming work will be taken into consideration by the markers or even if they will have a someone who specialises in computer science mark it as well as medievalists.

The last, major question is now that I know I want to make a digital edition, how will I do it?

The current standard for creating digital editions is to use TEI. I have also considered using a relational database which Grenier-Winther used in her project and Tarrin Wills (one of my supervisors) discusses using for the Skaldic Project in his article. However some people I was speaking to at the DH conference thought that a database would be overkill, that for a project of my scale the TEI would be sufficient and that I should think about doing a minimalist edition. These two options are also for the data, I also need to think about programming the user-interface.

An important consideration is that I will be programming myself, so there is a great time and resources restriction because of that. I think the best way forward is to complete a sort of use case study/ software requirement analysis to review what I want to produce: how it will look and work, how I should do it, and how much time I have to actually spend on it.

If anyone reading has any opinions on the matter, I am more than open to ideas!

*Grenier-Winther, Joan, ‘Server-Side Databases, the World Wide Web, and the Editing of Medieval Poetry: The Case of La Belle dame qui eut mercy‘ in The Book Unbound: Editing and Reading Medieval Manuscripts and Texts ed. by Siân Echard and Stephen Partridge (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), pp. 190-220 (pp. 191-2). [Can be found on Google books here]

Doctoral Research: Two Old English Saints’ Lives

After an extended summer holiday break, we’re back! For those of you who had a break, I hope it was enjoyable; if you didn’t get a break, hopefully it was at least productive.

Since I am starting my PhD this year and it’s our first post of the year, I thought this would be a good opportunity to briefly introduce my doctoral research.

The rather boring working title for my thesis is ‘St. Chad and St. Guthlac: Two Old English Saints’ Lives.’ I plan on preparing an edition of the Old English prose versions of the Life of St. Chad and the Life of St. Guthlac, complete with a modern translation and commentary.

St. Guthlac (673-714) was a Mercian nobleman who later became a monk, then hermit. Notably, Guthlac gave sanctuary to Æthelbald, who later became king of Merica. Felix’s Vita Sancti Guthlaci was written within living memory of Guthlac and was likely the basis for the Old English prose version. The Life of St. Guthlac is found in Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare MS CXVII (Vercelli Book).

St. Chad (c. 634-672) was an Anglo-Saxon churchman: he was Abbot of Lastingham and later Bishop of York. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede provides many details about Chad’s life and his career in the church. The Life of St. Chad is contained in Bodleian, MS Hatton 116.

In my introductory commentary I intend to address a number of issues including: the date and provenance of the texts; the dialects of each text – the Life of St. Chad is supposedly in a Kentish dialect, though it is debated if there is such a dialect, and the Life of St. Guthlac is in a Mercian dialect; as well as discuss these texts as probable translations from Latin originals; their manuscript context; and as examples of Old English hagiography.

These texts have not been looked at much in recent scholarship. The most recent critical edition of the Life of St. Chad was published in 1953, while the Life of St. Guthlac was last edited and translated in 1909.

I look forward to providing you all with updates as my research progresses.