Category Archives: FRANCE

Archaeologists study crumbling 1,300-year-old shipwreck

Archaeologists study crumbling 1,300-year-old shipwreck

A 1,300-year-old shipwreck is so fragile that air could destroy it has been unearthed in southern France and archaeologists face a race against time to reveal its medieval secrets. The partial remains of the “extremely rare” 40-foot-long boat, which radiocarbon dates from between A.D. 680 and A.D. 720, were unveiled at Villenave-d’Ornon near Bordeaux on Wednesday.

Archaeologists study crumbling 1,300-year-old shipwreck
An archaeologist sprays water to maintain the moisture of an unearthed 1,300-year-old shipwreck near Bordeaux, France, on Tuesday.

The French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research said the boat was an “exceptional testimony to the naval architecture of the high Middle Ages” and could have navigated rivers, as well as the Atlantic coast of France.

“In order to limit the degradation of the wood of the wreck, especially at the moment with the heatwave in the southwest of France, we are watering the wreck every 30 minutes,” Laurent Grimbert, who is leading the excavation for the institute, told NBC News via email Thursday.

“The excavation and dismantling of the wreck should be finished by mid-September. For the moment we are on schedule and each piece of wood that is dismantled teaches us more about the shipbuilding techniques of the early Middle Ages.”

The boat was discovered in 2013, buried in the silted bed of a stream. But it is only now being painstakingly taken apart piece by piece to discover its true nature and purpose.

Because the beams of oak, chestnut and pine have not had contact with oxygen and light for so long, they must be watered to stop them from splintering. Once removed and cleaned, the wooden beams will be submerged in water.

The boat’s final fate is uncertain: The wood could be injected with resin to preserve it or it could be reburied where it was found.

Early investigations show the vessel was capable of carrying large cargo, the institute said on its website.

There is only one other boat from the period in France — found in the Charente River in southwestern France, it’s still underwater — and only a handful have ever been found in Europe.

The boat’s original size is estimated to be around 40 feet — why it sank remains a mystery.

Experts are keen to understand how and why the boat was in the stream alongside the Garonne River.

“The existence of a small port, near the mouth of a side stream of the Garonne, in a marshy area exploited since antiquity and throughout the medieval era, indicates that these apparently unattractive sectors are actually exploited for their many resources,” the institute said.

The boat dates to the time of the Franks, a tribal people who came to dominate large swaths of western Europe in the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire.

The ruling faction of the Franks at the time, the Merovingians, were known for their kings’ long hair.

Clovis I, their most famous king, is credited as the first to unite the Franks under one kingdom. Former French President Charles de Gaulle is reported to have said that his country’s history began with his crowning. Clovis is also a forerunner of the most regal of French names: Louis.

The Guadeloupe Woman: A Human Skeleton Dating Back 28 Million Years

The Guadeloupe Woman: A Human Skeleton Dating Back 28 Million Years

In 1810 the British seized the French Island of Guadeloupe and sent a large stone slab back to England containing a skeleton of a headless and footless woman.  This particular skeleton has become the object of controversy regarding the age of the skeleton and the Creation debate.  We will discuss this skeleton and add to this debate.

We came across this oddity when reading the website Bad written by Keith Fitzpatrick Matthews, an English archaeologist.  Frankly, his precision and attention to specific detail regarding the skeleton were refreshing even though they demonstrated a traditional and narrow perspective.  We understand that science must be rigorous.

We also understand that it is necessary for science to disprove various theories in order to get to an accurate and truthful assessment of any object, artefact, or skeleton.  However, narrowness and rigid adherence to traditional methodologies do not guarantee correctness.  Since science, itself, is an exercise in probabilistic truth; it can’t guarantee certainty.

So, what do we have?  Well, we have a skeleton found in a slab of rock one mile long with an unknown date of origin.  Matthews states that the original investigator declared the stone to be a kind of sandstone made up of a concretion of calcareous sand.  Well, so far so good. Additionally, Matthews tells us that there is a graveyard near the site of the skeleton’s excavation began at the time of Columbus’ discovery of the island in the Caribbean in 1493.

Therefore, he believes this skeleton is not of Miocene age, 28 million to 5 million years old, but of a recent date, possibly in the 15th century.

Now, this skeleton may indeed be a 15th-century skeleton.  However, it is not proven to be so.  It still could be of a much older age even 28 million years old. 

This skeleton’s age may not be “discredited” at all because of the probabilistic nature of science and the fact that a modern age has not been proven either.  To properly determine its age one would have to examine the geology of the matrix surrounding the skeleton, examine the skeleton, itself, and properly study the geology of the island of Guadeloupe.  To the best of my knowledge, none of these things has been done.  So, there is a real lack of evidence on the side of traditional “mainline” archaeology to support a claim of a recent, 15th century, the age for this skeleton.

Now, can we find any other evidence to support a claim of an older age?  Yes!  First, the skeleton was embedded in rock.  This is a process that takes some time.  Second, we can consider a new technique, one that I have pioneered, that is the use of plate tectonics – the movement of the continental plates.

If we do this we arrive at an unexpected surprise.  Guadeloupe, as with all the islands of the West Indies rests on the Caribbean plate and neither on North America nor South American plates. 

This means if we extend the location of Guadeloupe backward in time we find that at the end of the Cretaceous Period, 66 million years ago, it was located south to southwest of the Yucatan. 

With the meteorite impact that killed the dinosaurs, a huge tidal wave of 1100 feet in height flooded all of Mexico and the surrounding area and could have carried the bodies of individuals to Guadeloupe. 

A closer look at the eastern side of the island shows an indentation that could have been caused by this tidal wave. Of course, additional geological research is needed to confirm this.

So, we claim that the skeleton has not been discredited until further research is done.  Furthermore, the fact of the Caribbean plate movements due to place Guadeloupe much closer to the Yucatan opens the door to the possibility that the skeleton maybe not be 28 million years old but 66 million years old.  The question is still open.

Author’s Note:  There is an impact crater in the Chesapeake Bay in the state of Virginia that is 35 million years old. The crater is 53 miles wide and fractured the Earth to a depth of between 6 to 12 miles. This impact could have resulted in a massive tidal wave that carried the Guadeloupe Woman to her present resting place.

The 6500-Year-Old Grave of the Unfortunate Ladies of Téviec

The 6500-Year-Old Grave of the Unfortunate Ladies of Téviec

Téviec would be a rather anonymous island located somewhere in Brittany, France, if it wasn’t for its great archaeological value thanks to the many finds – mainly from the Mesolithic Period – that have been excavated there. These finds include the skeletons of two women, dated between 6740 and 5680 BC, who may have been violently murdered.

Archaeologists Put Téviec on the Mesolithic Map

Téviec Island, Brittany, France. ( BCD)

Téviec is one of the very few known Mesolithic sites in Brittany, along with Pointe de la Torche, Hoëdic and Beg er Vil on the Quibe.

It has been the subject of a biotope protection scheme for the past 35 years. Therefore, landing on the island has become a troublesome task for contemporary archaeologists, since it is generally prohibited from 15 April to 31 August.

That wasn’t always the case, though. From 1928 to 1934, archaeologists Marthe and Saint-Just Péquart discovered and excavated a culturally and archaeologically rich Mesolithic site on the island, dating to between 5700 and 4500 BC.

According to most historians, this is considered the end of the Mesolithic period in western France and it overlaps with the beginning of the Neolithic period.

Marthe and Saint-Just Péquart – after first discovering the tomb. 1928

The main finds at the site were substantial middens formed of oyster and clam shells and ten multiple graves containing 23 skeletons, including adults and children.

Among the shells were the remains of animals as well, such as dogs, crabs, fish, lobsters, seabirds, deer, and boar among others. Due to the acidity of the soil in the location, the bones have been remarkably preserved, even though many of the skeletons showed clear signs of brutality and violence, including one with an arrowhead embedded in its spine.

A midden, composed of shells, animal bones etc. provides insights into life on the island.

The Unfortunate Ladies of Téviec

The most fascinating and mysterious of all discoveries, however, is undoubtedly the grave that includes the skeletons of two women aged 25–35, dubbed the “Ladies of Téviec.” Their bodies were buried delicately in a pit that was partly dug into the ground and coated over with debris from the midden.

The corpses had been protected all these centuries by a roof made of antlers and supplied with pieces of flint, boar bones, and jewellery made of sea shells such as necklaces, bracelets, and ringlets for their legs. The grave collection was unearthed from the site as a whole and is now on display at the Muséum de Toulouse, where its restoration in 2010 earned several awards.

The Ladies of Téviec, both feature traumatic injuries to the skull.

The thing that shocked archaeologists the most though, was the blatant violence and brutality the two women sustained before they died. Scientists examining the skeletons concluded that one of them had suffered five blows to the head, two of which were possibly fatal, and had also received at least one arrow shot between the eyes.

The other body also had traces of injuries, but not as violent as the body of her “friend.” In recent years, however, this diagnosis is debated by some archaeologists, who claim that the immense weight of the soil above the grave may have been the cause of damage to the skeletons.

An obvious question that probably occurs upon reading this is: How could the weight and composition of any soil – no matter how heavy it might be –ever justify an arrow shot between the eyes? It doesn’t make any sense, does it?

A Very Cold Case: Attempts to Solve the Téviec Mystery Almost 6,500 Years Later

In 2012, replicas of the two skeletons were laid for the first time on a mortuary slab of Toulouse Natural History Museum, during an exhibition titled Prehistory: The Investigation, which became a big hit in France.

“When you create an exhibition, you need to create an atmosphere and a lot of TV shows are about CSI and forensics and they always start with a forensics table – and here it is,” said Dr. Francis Duranthon, the director of the Toulouse Natural History Museum, pointing to the mortuary slab.

In the city of Toulouse alone, more than a hundred thousand people visited the exhibition, while in Paris two hundred thousand people watched closely the attempt of the scientists to solve this prehistoric mystery.

Isotope analysis of the two women’s teeth showed a diet of seafood and meat. That caused scientists to speculate that the two females possibly came from a small community that farmed, harvested the sea, and hunted. The exhibition also revealed that this was probably a community where women fulfilled a more domestic role. “It is unusual to find women killed this way during this period,” said Duranthon and added, “What we know is that at least two people were involved in these killings.”

Exhibit A? Skull from the Téviec burial. This female died when she was 25 to 35 years old from a violent death with numerous skull fractures and bone lesions associated with the impact of an arrow.

According to several academics, raids, in order to steal food, were pretty common back then and they suggest that the two unlucky women could have been victims of a bloody raid. However, some historians claim that what possibly killed the women was a long series of unfortunate meteorological phenomena. Droughts back then would usually decimate a farming community, while an extreme hailstorm destroyed crops, and people would see these as signs that the gods needed to be appeased. Thus, the two women might have been sacrificed as victims of ritual murder, slain by people they knew – or even family members.

So, what really happened to the “Ladies of Téviec”? As it’s the case with many historical mysteries throughout the centuries…We will probably never know!

The Stolen Nostradamus manuscript is returned to the library in Rome

The Stolen Nostradamus manuscript is returned to the library in Rome

An ancient manuscript by the French astrologer Michel de Nostredame, better known as Nostradamus, stolen from a library in Rome has been returned to the Italian capital.

The Stolen Nostradamus manuscript is returned to the library in Rome
The 500-page Nostradamus manuscript is about 300 years old.

The manuscript, entitled Nostradamus M Prophecies and dating back about 500 years, was rediscovered last year when it was put up for sale by a German auction house.

It is unclear exactly when the 500-page manuscript was stolen from the historical studies centre of the Barnabite fathers of Rome, but it is believed to have been in about 2007.

The book passed through flea markets in Paris and the German city of Karlsruhe before an art dealer tried to sell it through an auction house in Pforzheim, Baden-Württemberg, at a starting price of €12,000 (£10,200).

In April last year investigators from Italy’s cultural heritage protection squad came across the book on the auction house’s website. They identified it as originating from the library in Rome via a stamp dated 1991 on one of the pages.

Rome’s public prosecutor contacted his counterpart in Pforzheim, who began an investigation.

German experts established the book was an original work of Nostradamus, who was famous for his cryptic prediction of world events, and was the one trafficked from Rome.

The manuscript was returned to the library on Wednesday.

Italy’s cultural heritage protection team was established in 1969 and has retrieved more than 3m stolen artefacts.

In December 2021 the US returned about 200 antiquities, including an ancient Roman sculpture that almost ended up in possession of Kim Kardashian West, that had been stolen and smuggled out of Italy.

 The text and picture caption was amended on 10 May 2022. An earlier version said the manuscript dated about 300 years; we should have said nearly 500 years.

In a burial ground full of Stone Age men, one grave holds a ‘warrior’ woman

In a burial ground full of Stone Age men, one grave holds a ‘warrior’ woman

The mysterious 6,500-year-old burial of a woman and several arrowheads in northern France may reveal details of how women were regarded in that society during the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age, a new study finds.

In a burial ground full of Stone Age men, one grave holds a 'warrior' woman
Scientists tested the ancient DNA of 14 people interred at the monumental cemetery at Fleury-sur-Orne and found that only one individual buried there was female.

The researchers investigated giant graves known as “long barrows” — large earthen mounds, often hundreds of feet long and sometimes retained by wooden palisades that have since rotted away. Of the 19 human burials in the Neolithic cemetery at Fleury-sur-Orne in Normandy, the team analyzed the DNA of 14 individuals; but only one was female.

The woman was buried with “symbolically male” arrows in her grave, and the researchers argue that she may have had to be regarded as “symbolically male” to be buried there.

“We believe that these male-gendered artefacts place her beyond her biological sexual identity,” said study lead author Maïté Rivollat, an archaeologist and geneticist at the University of Bordeaux. “This implies that the embodiment of the male sex in death was necessary for her to gain access to burial in these gigantic structures.”

Archaeologists attribute the barrows at Fleury-sur-Orne to the Neolithic Cerny culture. Several other Cerny cemeteries have been found hundreds of miles away in the Paris Basin region to the southeast, but Fleury-sur-Orne is the largest yet found in Normandy.

The first monumental graves at Fleury-sur-Orne in Normandy were built in the early Neolithic period about 6,500 years ago. They consist of earthen mounds or “long barrows” up to 1,200 feet long.

But while the two regions shared the common Cerny culture, there seem to have been local differences about who could be buried in high-status graves. While both men and women were buried in almost equal numbers in the Paris Basin, the cemetery at Fleury-sur-Orne was almost exclusively male, so it was surprising to find a woman in one of the barrows, Rivollat told Live Science in an email.

However, it’s challenging to know what kind of life the woman led. “I don’t think we can speculate anyhow about her status — we don’t have enough elements for that,” she said.

More might be revealed about the mysterious Neolithic woman by ongoing scientific work, such as isotopic analysis — an examination of elemental variants in her remains — that could reveal details about her diet and geographical origins, Rivollat said. 

Women were buried at other cemeteries attributed to the same Cerny culture elsewhere in northern France. But the researchers suggest that societal rules that only symbolically male “hunters” might have been buried at Fleury-sur-Orne.

Neolithic cemetery

The Neolithic cemetery at Fleury-sur-Orne near Caen was discovered in aerial photographs taken in the 1960s, and the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) has led a major “rescue excavation” there since 2014.

The latest excavations have been huge, covering more than 60 acres (24 hectares) and have revealed several Neolithic barrow graves and other monuments, including the longest barrow ever discovered in Europe, measuring 1,220 feet (372 meters) long. 

Rivollat’s team had access to samples of the human remains in the Fleury-sur-Orne barrows; the new studies of their ancient DNA revealed which remains were male — with an X and a Y sex chromosome — and which were female, with two X chromosomes.

The team also used the samples of ancient DNA to determine any family links between the people buried there, and the scientists found that almost all the barrow occupants were unrelated, except for a father and a son who had been buried in the same barrow.

This clue, as well as other aspects of the DNA analysis, suggested the barrow burials at Fleury-sur-Orne were from a patrilineal community — in which social authority was inherited along the male lineage — while the daughters of a family left to live with the families of their mates, the researchers suggested. 

However, the woman buried alongside arrows at the site “questions a strictly biological sex bias in the burial rites of this otherwise ‘masculine’ monumental cemetery,” the researchers wrote in the study. It’s not known if only the flint arrowheads were placed in the woman’s grave, or if they were originally attached to wooden shafts that have since rotted away. 

Replicas of the arrowheads and other flint objects found in the barrows at Fleury-sur-Orne. A burial with arrows, quivers, or bows is thought to distinguish the symbolically male “hunter” class of people in Cerny culture.
The Neolithic cemetery at Fleury-sur-Orne was discovered by aerial photographs in the 1960s. The French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) has led a major “rescue excavation” there since 2014, ahead of planned construction work.
The only woman at the Fleury-sur-Orne cemetery was buried with flint arrowheads, which may have indicated she was “symbolically male,” researchers say.

Individuals of power

Earlier studies of Cerny cemeteries in the Paris Basin distinguish one particular category of “individuals of power” by burying them with arrows, quivers and possibly bows — perhaps thereby identifying them as “hunters.”

Those studies showed that such hunters were always men, with stress markers on their bones that were consistent with drawing bows, the researchers of the new study noted, writing that. “Together, the recognition is given to the masculine, to archery or to hunting, or even more broadly, to the wild world, characterizes the Cerny ideology in the Paris Basin.” 

It’s not known whether the woman buried at the Cerny cemetery at Fleury-sur-Orne was formally regarded as a “hunter” by her community, but “she was buried with four arrowheads, a type of artefact that is considered to be exclusively male in its associations in the Cerny culture,” the researchers wrote in the study.

This, in turn, implied that her burial at the site was an absolute necessity; and that her gender was “presented as masculine, which has granted her access, through the funerary rites, to this monumental cemetery,” they wrote. 

Chris Fowler, a senior lecturer in later prehistoric archaeology at the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom, who wasn’t involved in the latest study but who’s led investigations of Neolithic tombs in the UK, noted the woman buried at Fleury-sur-Orne seemed to have been held in the same regard as the men buried there.

He added that the individuals buried in different barrows were unrelated and that not all members of the much larger community were buried in the barrows.

“It is fascinating that so many lineages shared the same burial ground while selecting if you like, just one or two representatives from their lineage to be buried at the cemetery marked by these extensive mounds,” he told Live Science in an email. “This raises further questions about the social and political dynamics among these lineages.”

The study was published on April 21 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

First Modern Humans Arrived in Europe Earlier Than Previously Known

First Modern Humans Arrived in Europe Earlier Than Previously Known

Some 30 years of archaeological and other types of scientific research around the ancient artefacts and human remains in the Grotte Mandarin, located in the Rhone River Valley in southern France, has revealed that humans may have arrived in Europe about 10,000 years earlier than originally thought.

This conclusion, drawn by an international team of researchers including Jason Lewis, PhD, of Stony Brook University, will help scientists rethink the arrival of humans into Europe and their replacement of and interactions with Neanderthals who also lived in the cave.

The research is detailed in a paper published in Science Advances.

Previous studies have suggested that the first modern humans reached the European continent – originally from Africa and via the Levant, the eastern Mediterranean crossroads – between 43,000 and 48,000 years ago.

But this discovery of modern human presence in the heart of the Rhone River Valley at Grotte Mandrin points to about 54,000 years ago.

Close-up of the Grotte Mandrin in southern France where scientists have uncovered layers of history that include both modern human and Neanderthal activity.

The area of the cave excavated and analyzed that proved the evidence of modern human presence is Mandrin’s Layer E. It is sandwiched between 10 other layers of artefacts and fossils that contain evidence of Neanderthal life.

“The first curious signal to emerge during the initial decade of excavations were thousands of tiny triangular stone points, resembling arrowheads, some less than a centimetre in length,” explains Lewis.

“These had no technical precursors or successors in the surrounding Neanderthal layers.”

Lewis explained that the well-preserved cave, discovered in the 1960s, includes uppermost layers that contain materials from the Bronze Age and Neolithic periods. But over the past quarter-century, the international scientific team has analyzed three meters of sediment and evidence from the Paleolithic – a period when Neanderthals and their ancestors occupied Europe and periodically had contact with evolving modern humans.

The consensus theory until now was that these modern humans expanded into the southeastern European region about 50,000 years ago and the Neanderthals progressively disappeared.

The research involved analyses of various types of hundreds of fossils, stone tools, and ancient human teeth.

The team used radiocarbon and luminescence dating, DNA and another molecular testing, and lithic technological analysis.

Co-author Marine Frouin, PhD, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, completed luminescence dating work at Mandarin that helped estimate dates when humans occupied the cave.

“I joined the team in 2014 to obtain the first luminescence dates at the site,” explains Frouin.

“Due to advances in our dating methods and new collaborations that developed a few years later, we were able to put together a precise and robust timeline for when modern humans and Neanderthals were there.”

Many small triangular stone points from Mandrin’s Layer E helped lead scientists to determine modern humans lived in the cave, and therefore their presence in Europe was 10,000 years earlier than previously suspected.

Intriguingly, the international scientific team also determined that the evidence of humans at and around the ancient cave showed they occupied the territory for only one or two generations. Then, they disappeared just as mysteriously and quickly as they had arrived and Neanderthals reoccupied the region and site.

“Our overall discovery changes the landscape regarding the time humans arrived in Europe and raises other questions, some of which we think we can answer and others that require more investigation,” adds Lewis

Such questions are: How did modern humans know about the stone resources around the cave in France around the varied landscape in such a short time? Did they have relationships with Neanderthals, such as exchanging of information, and goods and acting as guides? Did these two hominin groups interbreed more frequently than science has previously suggested? Additional discoveries from Mandarin will soon be announced that will shed light on these and other questions about our ancient ancestors.

Prehistoric Artworks May Have Been Carved by Firelight

Prehistoric Artworks May Have Been Carved by Firelight

Our early ancestors probably created intricate artwork by firelight, an examination of 50 engraved stones unearthed in France has revealed. The stones were incised with artistic designs around 15,000 years ago and have patterns of heat damage which suggests they were carved close to the flickering light of a fire, the new study has found.  

Prehistoric Artworks May Have Been Carved by Firelight
Photograph showing ambient light levels and the position of replica plaquettes in relation to the fire.

The study, by researchers at the Universities of York and Durham, looked at the collection of engraved stones, known as plaquettes, which are now held in the British Museum.

They are likely to have been made using stone tools by Magdalenian people, an early hunter-gatherer culture dating from between 23,000 and 14,000 years ago.

The researchers identified patterns of pink heat damage around the edges of some of the stones, providing evidence that they had been placed in close proximity to a fire. 


Following their discovery, the researchers have experimented with replicating the stones themselves and used 3D models and virtual reality software to recreate the plaquettes as prehistoric artists would have seen them: under fireside light conditions and with the fresh white lines engravers would have made as they first cut into the rock thousands of years ago.

Lead author of the study, Dr Andy Needham from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York and Co-Director of the York Experimental Archaeology Research Centre said: “It has previously been assumed that the heat damage visible on some plaquettes was likely to have been caused by accident, but experiments with replica plaquettes showed the damage was more consistent with being purposefully positioned close to a fire.

“In the modern-day, we might think of art as being created on a blank canvas in daylight or with a fixed light source; but we now know that people 15,000 years ago were creating art around a fire at night, with flickering shapes and shadows.”


Working under these conditions would have had a dramatic effect on the way prehistoric people experienced the creation of art, the researchers say. It may have activated an evolutionary capacity designed to protect us from predators called “Pareidolia”, where perception imposes a meaningful interpretation such as the form of an animal, a face or a pattern where there is none.    

Dr Needham added: “Creating art by firelight would have been a very visceral experience, activating different parts of the human brain.

We know that flickering shadows and light enhance our evolutionary capacity to see forms and faces in inanimate objects and this might help explain why it’s common to see plaquette designs that have used or integrated natural features in the rock to draw animals or artistic forms.”  


The Magdalenian era saw a flourishing of early art, from cave art and the decoration of tools and weapons to the engraving of stones and bones.

Co-author of the study, PhD student Izzy Wisher from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham, said: “During the Magdalenian period conditions were very cold and the landscape was more exposed.

While people were well-adapted to the cold, wearing warm clothing made from animal hides and fur, the fire was still really important for keeping warm. Our findings reinforce the theory that the warm glow of the fire would have made it the hub of the community for social gatherings, telling stories and making art.

“At a time when huge amounts of time and effort would have gone into finding food, water and shelter, it’s fascinating to think that people still found the time and capacity to create art. It shows how these activities have formed part of what makes us human for thousands of years and demonstrate the cognitive complexity of prehistoric people.”

French farmer finds rare coin featuring Charlemagne just before his death

French farmer finds rare coin featuring Charlemagne just before his death

A rare 1,200-year-old silver coin featuring Charlemagne — one of the only known portraits made of the emperor during his lifetime — was recently rediscovered and promptly taken on a wild journey from a farm in France, to the bidding grounds of eBay and, finally, to a museum in Germany.

This rare silver coin shows a portrait of Charlemagne that was made during his lifetime.

The coin’s modern travels began when a man in France wanted to build a house but was short on cash. He remembered that he had inherited a coin collection from his grandfather, a farmer in the Paris region. After going through his grandfather’s collection, the man discovered the Charlemagne coin, known as a denarius, and he put it up for auction on eBay.

“We have here some experts that regularly check what is on eBay concerning archaeology,” said Frank Pohle, director of the Route Charlemagne, a group of municipal museums in Aachen, Germany, that focus on cultural history. “One of them told me ‘Hey, there is a piece of money in eBay France that could be a real denarius of Charlemagne.”

The museum decided to enter a bid. To their relief, they got the coin depicting Charlemagne and his imperial title: IMP(erator) AVG(ustus), a reference to Emperor Augustus, the first Roman emperor and a title used by the many emperors of the Roman Empire, whom Charlemagne was trying to emulate. (Pohle wouldn’t reveal the coin’s price, but said, “It was not that expensive. We are very content.”)

Charlemagne (ruled A.D. 768 to 814), also known as Charles the Great, was king of the Franks and became the first ruler to unite Western and Central Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D. Due to his political power, military might and close relationship with the Vatican, Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans on Christmas day in A.D. 800.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that, in this coin portrait, Charlemagne “presents himself really as Roman emperor,” Pohle told Live Science. “He has the laurel on his hat, which is quite unusual for Frankish kings. He is wearing a dress like a Roman general.”

The portrait also reveals that Charlemagne had a round face, a moustache and a short neck, the latter a detail noted by Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard, Pohle said. 

Putting his portrait on the 0.7-inch-diameter (1.9 centimetres) coin “has something to do with his ambitions,” Pohle told Live Science. “That type of coin is quite a good copy of what the Roman emperors did in their times … to use money as a piece of their own marketing purposes.”

There are only about 50 individual denarii coins bearing a portrait of Charlemagne created in his lifetime. “Most [denarii] only have his name on it, no portrait,” Marjanko Pilekić, a numismatist and research assistant at the Coin Cabinet of the Schloss Friedenstein Gotha Foundation in Germany, who is not involved with the newfound coin, told Live Science. 

The back of the coin features a building, which has a Christian cross on it and looks like a mix between a Roman temple and a church, Pohle said. 

The back of the coin features a mix between a Roman temple and a church.

When was it minted?

Museum experts have determined that the 0.5-ounce (1.5 grams) coin was likely minted in Aachen due to the city’s importance, as that’s where Charlemagne was born and later died. But the date of its minting is unclear.

After being crowned Roman emperor, he didn’t immediately use the title “Emperor Augustus” found on the coin. 

“Although he was already crowned in 800, he didn’t use that title [until] 812,” Pohle said. “It had something to do with his diplomatic connections with Byzantium,” also known as the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire. Instead, Charlemagne used the title “Emperor Governing the Roman Empire,” according to Britannica.

Finally, in 812, the Byzantine Empire recognized Charlemagne’s emperorship, so he started using the title found on the coin, making this a possible date for the coin’s minting, Pilekić said.

The coin also could have been minted in the year 813, when Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, was appointed as co-emperor and had similar coinage made. 

“Charlemagne was ill during the last three to four years of his life, i.e. around 810-814, and was particularly concerned about the future of the empire,” Pilekić said. “He had only one son left, whom he appointed co-emperor in 813. One theory is that the portrait coinage was created in the last year of his life. That is, at a time when he was probably striving for an orderly succession.”

Another idea is that “these coins were specifically intended to commemorate the occasion of the emperor’s coronation and therefore did not really serve as money like the other denarii of Charlemagne, which do exist in significantly larger numbers without a portrait and imperial title,” Pilekić added.

It’s hard to say how much this coin was worth at the time. “The amount of silver is quite low,” but if you had 12 to 20 denarii, you could probably buy a cow, Pohle said.