The First Round of “Ask Me Anything” Answers!

Sorry this took a bit, I was hoping to get a few more, but this is a good start.

I think I did myself, and everybody, a great disservice by saying I would help with general medieval information. I sat here and derped pretty hard, so, for future questions, please keep them limited to Roman/Byzantine only for my own sanity, and for the sake of the querents getting a decent answer. Questions can be sent to syrakousina -at- gmail.com. (remember to remove -at- and replace with @, no spaces.)

 

Libby: Do you know of a survey of band weaving finds from 13th century and earlier?

I’m afraid I do not. Since I don’t weave more than an inkle band here and there, it’s just not something I look for. If somebody else sees this, hopefully they can chime in down in the comments to get you where you need to go. You honestly will have better luck in a weaving group on Facebook than I can find you in 3 minutes of google searching.

 Nicola: I am a fan of your blog and enjoy seeing your research and the work you do for your SCA persona and the community as a whole. I’m a LARPer over in the UK and was wondering how you keep the veils and layers of headdresses in place. The persona I’m currently playing is from medieval times but practical hints and tips would be very interesting to read about, if you’re willing to write about something a little more off topic.

You need to use bands, and pin the veil to the band. This is a period method, and you can really impress your LARPer friends. I’ve used this guide now for years: http://www.virtue.to/articles/veils.html Now, I’ve made some adjustment since my hair was so short for years, but now I’m growing it out. I’ve found that in a pinch when my hair was in a pixie cut, white cotton headbands you can buy at the drugstore do the job since they really aren’t going to slide anywhere. Now that I have shoulder-length hair, I cap it up first. You can see it a bit here with my 11th Century veil. The cap beneath my veil holds back all of my hair, and then the silk veil is pinned over it, allowing my coronet to just sit on top and not have to be shoved onto my head, or cause more weight. The gentlewoman to my right in the veil is also wearing a cap beneath hers, and you can see the pins better.

 

Dyonisia: So I have been fascinated with hoods for a while now. I make them and end up giving them away. But i also want to get research information on them. My focus is from 1000-1600.  I also am looking for any embroidery that are on those hoods. Any help would be wonderful.

I am also interested in shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. Looking at what was shipped and where they were going. I am looking at 1200-1600. Any resources ect. would help.

This is a really really REALLY broad topic that I feel could benefit from narrowing down into a specific time and place so you aren’t overwhelmed. Fashion changes a lot over the span of 500 years, and since you did not give a location, I’m going to tell you what I know regarding my area of expertise. I recommend breaking down your project and focusing on one hood from one place at a time, otherwise, you’re going to be overwhelmed and find nothing.

Disclaimer: I’m not an embroiderer, and as far as my personal scope of research goes, you won’t find much at least in the Byzantine area. They were more into woven designs that were appliqued on. As far as if this applied to hoods, I’m not sure. The Byzantines were not “hood wearers” like you see in the western part of the continent. The one hooded garment that you see commonly is called a “paenula”, a very simple hooded poncho that goes back to Roman times. After the 6th Century, you don’t see it too much outside of iconographic interpretation, which makes me think that maybe it fell out of style in the cosmopolitan areas during the early centuries, but maintained part of the traditional imagery we still have today. The climate in the Eastern Mediterranean is different than say, France, so hooded garments seemed to be pushed to the wayside for turbans, veils, and other headwear. Seeing gold work on turbans was common. The type of design is referred to as “grammata” in the original Greek, so basically golden letters, possibly pseudo-Kufic script. Of course, paenulae may have still been used in the countryside as a functional garment, but most depictions of working class Byzantines show little to no embellishment. Who the heck wants to clean mud off of expensive, time-consuming embroidery?

On the subject of your interest in shipping, again, you need to narrow this down. You have a 400-year timespan, and no specific culture or ports in mind. From 1200-1400, the crusades dominated the Eastern Mediterranean as well, with the Fourth Crusade wrecking the commerce of the Byzantine Empire for the remainder of its existence.

I do love your enthusiasm, but let me give you some helpful research tips to make your massive interests work a bit smoother in your favor. I feel like you really don’t know where to start, which is why you’ve asked me such broad questions, and that’s okay, we all have humble beginnings.

 A good rule of thumb is: if your Google search isn’t coming back with anything, narrow it down until it does. “Medieval hoods 1000-1600” is going to probably give you a Pinterest, while “extant medieval hood” is going to give you images of stuff that is still around from museum databases. “Hoods worn in medieval France” is going to give you better answers. Head right to the Met or British Museum websites and look up their collections, they’re here to help! Same with your interest in shipping. This is where getting into the fun journal databases will be a huge advantage. You can even pop over to JSTOR and put in some search terms. I found this article first shot just typing in “medieval Mediterranean shipping”: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt1kgqt6m Chances are, you have friends with JSTOR or library access that can help you get the material. If this is something you really want to focus on, it may be worthwhile to invest in an account. Who knows, you could end up getting enough material to write your own Compleat Anachronist! Good luck!

Marc: I found your blog via a search on Byzantine costuming – and noted that you’re up to answering questions about same.

Well, I have a perhaps atypical one: I’m finishing in the details of a story set in early 14th Century Trebizond, and I haven’t been able to put together visually a wedding dress for one of the legendary Trapezuntine princesses. I have some vague piecemeal ideas, shoulder panels covered with pearls, etc. and I can draw a little from Pisanello’s St. George and the Princess of Trebizond, but I really can’t imagine what a wedding gown at that level of Byzantine society would look like – particularly the colors.

 You’re actually in luck, because Maria Parani has written a great article on this, and it’s available for free on Academia.edu: https://www.academia.edu/578063/_Byzantine_Bridal_Costume_in_%CE%94%CF%8E%CF%81%CE%B7%CE%BC%CE%B1._A_Tribute_to_the_A._G._Leventis_Foundation_on_the_Occasion_of_Its_20th_Anniversary_Nicosia_2000_185-216  

Hopefully this gives you the answer you’re looking for. I could cite it, but having the whole article in your face is probably better than whatever I could blab. Good luck with your novel!

Ask me anything!

So, while I’m taking a short break from heavy SCA sewing and research, I want everybody to help me keep my brain ticking.

Every week, or however often I get questions, I’m going to have a question/answer column here on my blog. Feel free to ask me anything about Roman and Byzantine history, textiles, clothing, etc, and I’ll give you a complete answer, or as complete as I can, with citations to send you on your way. General ancient and medieval history  questions can also be fielded if you’re looking for something more broad.

If this gets busy, I don’t know how many questions I’ll be able to answer, but I’ll do my best to make sure that everybody is covered.

Got a question for me?

Hit me up at syrakousina at gmail.com.

Surprise! Icon!

I took a break from iconography for a while because I felt like my art wasn’t up to snuff, and I was thinking of giving up. By the way: never give up. I had the pleasure of working at the Museum of Russian Icons over the fall semester of 2015, and I learned a lot while I was there, including getting the change to work with the entire inventory, and examine, and touch, period icons. While I was there, I went ahead and purchased some better accurate pigments and more gold, and decided it was time to get back into the swing of things. Initially, I was going to try my hand at turning an icon into my husband’s backlog scroll for the Order of the Silver Crescent, but then I got an offer I couldn’t refuse: Konstantia, my blue twin out in Calontir, was to receive her Herald Extraordinary, and the now-Gold Falcon Herald, Uji, invited me in on the shenanigans.

Initially, I was asked to just do the words. Here is what I came up with instead. Oops?

First, I purchased real icon boards from Pandora Iconography Supplies. It doesn’t have a kovcheg (recess), but that’s because those are expensive. Each 11×14″ board is $55 a piece as is, and custom made upon ordering.  I tried my hand at gessoing my own panels, and uh, yeah, nothing beats the real thing by the professionals, even at the price.

So I laid it out, as you do. The pattern is from an actual 13th Century icon of St. Gabriel the Archangel (Herald of God, and the end of the world, and stuff.) and is still popular today.

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Then I prepared the halo for gilding with real red clay bole, which I also purchased from Pandora. As you can see this go around, I also bole’d the edges. This is something I learned at the museum. It symbolizes the artist being mortal, and rough around the edges, therefore, it doesn’t get sanded and burnished like the halo does.

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Note the thickness of the application here. This is vital to a good leaf adherence. You literally just puddle the liquid bole on, try not to get air bubbles, and let it dry.

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After the nice thick layer of bole dried overnight, I burnished it with agate to bring out that blingy shine.

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After the gold leaf (23kt double gold in this case) was down, the sankir and roskrish are applied, including real vermilion for the cloak. That’s mercury sulfide. You know, death in paint form. (To quote my  grad school classmate and fellow SCAdian Wilhelm: “Only in the Middle Ages could something so mundanely boring potentially kill you.”) The stuff was like painting on a cloud though, but at $18 for a smidgin, I don’t see myself using it all the time. This was a special occasion that warranted potentially poisoning myself.

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I tested the shell gold on the vermilion once it was dry to see how it would turn out, and decided yes.
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And the highlighting process begins, with poor Gabriel looking as if he literally can’t even.

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Some hot dry pigment action:

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More highlighting:

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And then ALL THE SHELL GOLD. OMG, SO MUCH GOLD.

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*BLING!*

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Roll that beautiful inscription footage, ah yiss…

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And then, the actual “scroll” wording needed to go down. I based this on some period examples of text included in the borders of icons. I need to work on my lettering, but I think I did a fair job, considering this is my first icon “scroll” ever. I kept with the plain yellow ochre border, as it was an extremely common choice in period. It’s also affordable and predictable.

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And DING! SCROLL IS DONE! Words are based on the Akathistos Hymn to Mary.

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Gabriel can’t even. Literally.

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Obviously, I had to send it from the East to Calontir, and I managed to sneak it in the mail the day I left for Spring Break. Now that it’s signed, she needs to send it back so I can apply the oil varnish and make sure that it’s protected properly.

Oh, the kicker? I did her garb for her Stepping-Down from Gold Falcon, and surprise Herald Extraordinary bestowal as well. 😉 Which at least, she commissioned and knew was coming.

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I am so dead the next time I see her. *shifty eyes*

If the shoe fits, what color should they be ANYWAY?

Oh red shoes. Byzantines and red shoes. Wear ALL the red shoes, but…should we be wearing the red shoes?

In the SCA, we’re all playing nobility, but we still have a hierarchy. Granted, it’s nothing like a true feudal system, but we still have ranks and titles that come with it certain privileges in dress. A knight or master of arms is a fine example with their right to wear a white belt or baldric. In the case of the Eastern Romans, shoes played a huge part in who you were and what job you did.

Red shoes are imperial in nature. Done. Story over.

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This is me getting my dreams shattered.

This started because I was pondering joining the Red Shoe Club under the urgings of a duchess friend from Artemisia. Prompted for documentation that women wore them, I turned to my favorite, expensive source on the matter: Reconstructing the Reality of Images by Maria Parani. (Best $300 I ever spent on one book.) I seriously refer to it as my Book of Armaments.

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Oh Lord, bless this my book of Byzantine goodness so that I may dress snazzily, with thy mercy!

Parani pulls no punches in that she states that documentation for women wearing the red shoes is scarce (pg. 30.). I have yet to follow up her footnotes, but she cites Michael Psellos on the fact that the Empresses did wear the red shoes, and then Anna Komnene on that women wearing them in the absence of a male heir was rare.  Veering away from shoes momentarily, this is something I’m noticing a lot in the ways of court dress and titles: the women often wore what their husband were wearing. They took their titles, and they took their clothing privileges. So in the case of a solitary female ruler, she may not wear the red shoes in the lack of a male consort. We look at this now as incredibly misogynistic, but this is how the world worked for centuries.

In period, I would have a husband, and he would be the hypatos (consul), therefore, as hypatissa, I would be allowed to mimic his clothing and regalia for court functions. In the SCA, my husband is not a baron, so I stand alone as a baroness. This is common in the game we play. So this is when you need to think with your persona, versus thinking as a SCAdian. Of course, if I really thought as my persona, I wouldn’t be in Byzantine dress most of the time anyway, I would be in Norman dress.  Gross. But I digress.

So, if red shoes aren’t an option unless you’re on the throne (and consequently, a royal peer having already been ON the throne and have in excess a wardrobe of royal lovelies) what choices do you have?

Parani herself seems to uncover several color options. In addition to the Imperial red, there’s yellow, blue, and green. Like all things Byzantine, these change over the course of history depending on what the emperor ate for lunch.  There is one citation she gives in which in a manuscript dated to the 10th Century, Pontius Pilate is seen wearing red shoes. (pg 82.) Is this evidence that non-imperials were wearing red? Hard to say. Personally as somebody who’s been reading up on iconography, such things could be used as symbolism. Perhaps to this artist, Pilate had feigned imperial power?

The general information I can compile (without just regurgitating Parani’s words, which is uncool anyway) at least for the re-enactor/re-creators looking for shoe ideas, is the following:

Yellow: Prefects, and then later the panhypersebastos (patrikoi within high favor of the Imperial Family) (pg. 71-72, 82.)

Blue: The Kaisar and Sebastokrator, usually immediate family members to the Emperor and maybe in line for the throne. In the Palailogos Dynasty, the Sebastokrator would have eagles embroidered on them. (pg. 71-72)

Green: Protovestiarios, the head eunuch in charge of finances.  (pg. 71-72)

Red and White with eagle embroideries: The Despotes, title of the heir-apparent during the Palailogos Dynasty. (pg. 72)

One red, one black: Chronicled by Arab geographer Ibn Hauqal as being worn by the Prefect in the 10th Century. (pg. 71 n. 83.)

That doesn’t leave a lot of options for SCAdians looking to stay in their persona. It would make sense for the Prince and Princess to wear blue, and I don’t know many eunuchs (not that they’d tell me anyway.)

So this really narrows it down to well, yellow. But who would wear it? Well, in some definitions, prefects were regional governors. In Greek the term is Eparch. From what I can gather, an eparchy was more of a district than the themata, which were ruled by the anthypatoi, or proconsuls.

But in the SCA, who would we place in these positions? My previous post discussed the equivalence of the anthypatoi with landed baronage, and hypatoi with court baronage. A barony is still an administrative area that was governed. But is this something that should be limited to just the SCA baronage? Ehhhh…maybe? I think this is going to be one of those “let your persona do the walking” things. I have yet to see a kingdom in our game that has sumptuary laws on shoes. Your best bet would be to study your own period and come up with who you want to be. Nobody is going to stop you as a lord or lady from wearing red shoes, but do you personally want to feign claim to the throne? Impostors got blinded in period. That doesn’t sound like much fun. And as far as the panhypersebastoi are concerned, that was any family that was in high favor of the Imperials in the mid 12th Century. So if you’re a later persona, that’s an option, especially if you’re in a kingdom where populace swearing fealty is common. If you’re in an office that swears fealty, absolutely.

On that note, I’m going yellow shoe shopping.

Friendly note: Historians love to argue, and this is information from ONE source. Although Doctor Parani’s work is very thorough and well cited, there are possibly other historians that disagree with her and have their own evidence. Don’t take this as the gospel truth, and feel free to explore other resources.

King’s and Queen’s and Theses and Classes.

I know it’s not like me to not post for a month, so here’s a little recap.

Last weekend my Lord Geoffrey and I competed at King’s and Queen’s Arts and Sciences in Montreal, Quebec. It’s always a treat to visit Canada, as the Principality of Tir Mara here in the East always knows how to put on a good event. Plus, poutine and beer. If you haven’t eaten your way across Montreal, I recommend it. I mean, there’s way more than poutine and smoked meat, but you at least get poutine, and smoked meat, or both at the same time. Like I did. For those that don’t live anywhere near Canada, poutine is a comfort food that basically consists of French fries smothered in a specific type of brown gravy and fresh cheese curds. It’s any dieter’s nightmare, and that’s okay. It’s sort of a Quebecois staple, but I know it’s quite popular in Ontario and the Maritimes as well, and trickling down into the Northern US. No, it’s not Disco Fries, which is a Pittsburgh thing.

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Poutine with Montreal smoked meat. Yes, this happened.

Oh hey, this was our collective displays. As you can see, I wrote another icon, this time of Anne and Mary, so I’ll be adding pics of that in my next post.

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Other than that hullabaloo, my semester is focusing on the material culture of Early New England, so I haven’t really had too much time to stay in Byzantium as much as I wanted. I’m interning at a historic house here in my town, and planning to dig this summer at an American site, so my overall material culture focus has completely shifted right now to a period I don’t particular know a lot about, so as I’m focusing on that, a lot of my SCA stuff is getting pushed aside. As it should, because GPA before SCA.

My thesis, however, has been preliminarily approved by my advisor, and will have to do with Byzantium, as it should, because I should play my strengths, not my weaknesses. Once I get that in full swing, I can discuss more about it, but do to the nature of academic research for a grade versus research for the betterment of a re-creation group, I can’t really share too many details just yet. But it will have me developing patterns and sewing through the summer and fall.

I’m not giving up completely, though, I do have my CLASSES SCHEDULED for East Kingdom University and Pennsic War.

At EKU, I will be giving my primary source class, as well as a class on how I broke down the Tunic Under the Stairs (another post coming, probably this week while I’m in Florida on spring break) to get my pattern that I use for my garb. For Pennsic, I will be giving that tunic class again, as well as one on Persian influences in Byzantine Dress. I am only teaching those 2 classes at war this year, since 4 really takes a lot out of me, and neither of them are 2 hours long (my poor voice last war!) So this will leave me plenty of time to do other things. Especially if I don’t sprain my ankle this time.

With that said, I’m on my way to Florida. I need to see some [effective] sun after this crappy winter we’ve had in New England.

Icon do it! St. Lucia of Syracuse icon completed!

So last spring after another botched attempt at iconography, I was prepared to give up the art form entirely. I’m not a painter, and the stuff I draw primarily is Japanese anime, which is, uh, so not period or even appropriate for icons at all.

This fall, I was asked to offer my skills as an artisan to the East Kingdom gift baskets to be given out at Pennsic. I accepted, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I decided, reluctantly, to pick up the brush again, but first I needed to practice.

I invested in new supplies: new pigment colors, new brushes, real gesso, and bole and olifa from an icon supply place on the internet.  I also went and got some real gold leaf, despite still having way too much composite from my previous projects I should use up first. I have silver and copper composite leaves that I picked up cheap from an art supply store locally, so I wondered if they would be of any use on practice pieces before I potentially wasted the good stuff.

Most icons are done in gold, but there are a few in silver encasement. After I did some digging, I did find this 11th Century icon with embossed silver leaf, so I figured that was at least some evidence that silver was being used in period on icons.  I used this as an excuse to blow through 4 sheets of composite silver on this piece.

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Embossed silver icon from the 11th Century.

I chose St. Lucia since she was from the same town as my persona. Local saints were prized in the Middle Ages, and that’s a good enough reason to assume that I would have strongly venerated her. She is also a patron of seamstresses, so a little saintly intervention in the sewing room can’t hurt. 😉 There’s plenty of modern icons patterns to choose from on the internet, so I picked the one I wanted, grabbed one of my remaining Gessobords (This one is 9″x12″), played with carbon paper, and followed the same steps as I did previously, only on the pretense of leafing all the things. The leafing took about 3 hours. Even with the larger sheets of fake stuff.

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I soon learned that embossing composite leaf was not going to work. I did more damage than anything, so I repaired the leaf where I borked it up, and decided to leave it flat. There’s plenty of flat gold icons. I may not be able to find a flat silver one, but we’ll call this a creative anachronism. (I mean, composite after all.)

So the painting started, with the layers being applied over several days. Mostly snow days, thanks to the lovely winter we’re having in New England. (Lovely as in @@#!#$$!!!!)

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I started to get nervous as I began to work toward the upper most highlight layers, this is where I had screwed up before. So, taking deep breaths, and using my new, thin brushes, I worked carefully, putting in no more than 2 hours a day over the course of about 7 days total. The finished results shocked me, they shocked my husband, they shocked my friends. I couldn’t believe I pulled off an icon that well, looked like an icon.

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I did it! I really actually DID IT. The best part is that she’s for meeeeee! I get to keep her and admire her next to poor Archangel Michael and show her off in displays without feeling mortified at my attempt.

The only real thing I don’t think I will ever do again is leaf or gild an entire panel. It was a pain it the butt to paint over where it accidentally got on the drawing. In fact, her halo and inscription are actually in acrylic. I had to cheat in order to get anything on the leaf. I’m sure that the real gold won’t act like the fake stuff, but I’m not about to try it right now and find out. Let’s get better at what I’m doing before I start ruining sheets of 22k gold.

In the mean time, Lucia is aging over the next week or so before I seal the leaf and oil the painting with olifa. And I plan to bring her and some other goods with me up to Montreal for King and Queen’s Arts and Sciences next month.

I also re-did my Iconography page with a more complete gallery and link to my tagged archive. Do go check it out.

Icon the Third.

Let me tell you all how hard it is to paint very light gray hair.

Also learned: Sometimes, your egg tempera medium just blows, and doesn’t work well. I had a really rough time dealing with my yellow ochre and vine black pigments this project, and I’m unsure why. Apparently it could do with the temperature of the medium (using it right out of the fridge) or my ratio of egg to wine.

This is an icon of St. Kenric I of Warwick, late King of the East. His martyrdom is signified by the wearing of a red cloak, and his death by black arrow is immortalized. This is a great schtick we have going in the East Kingdom right now as we try to discover the murderer of our former king. This icon is a donation to the Silent Auction we are running this weekend at the Coronation of Brennan and Caoilfhoinn to benefit the Royal War Chest Coffers.

I based this particular one off of an icon of Christ, and tried to mimic the earlier Orthodox church’s designs from the 6th and 7th Century, hence the freeform inscription, which reads, KENRIC BASILEUS ANATOLIKIS. “Kenric, King of the East.”

As you can see, I’m getting better, but not great yet. This was a great opportunity for practice, and man did it take some time.

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I’ll be making a page for my iconography soon. I figure it’s the best way to document my journey through the art form rather than scattered blog posts.

Artifacts of a Life recap

So last weekend (the 21st of September) was our Artifacts of a Life event here in the East Kingdom. There were some some amazing displays there!

The premise of the event was to create a collection of artifacts pertaining to your persona or another persona, something that they would have had during their life, grave goods, etc. I chose an 11th Century Byzantine woman, which, by the way, is rather hard. Because the majority of the artifacts we have from the Byzantine period are earlier.  Here is my display:

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Left to Right: Oxymel syrup, Icon of St. Michael the Archangel, Mosaic of a Black Dolphin, and a necklace of garnets and pearls based on one at the Met.

Here is a close up of the necklace. I totally failed in posting updates of me making it, but it took 2 seasons of Sons of Anarchy marathoning in the background to emulate the look. I swear my fingers still hurt looking at it.

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And the original:

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I tried to get a little bit of everything, namely aspects of a Byzantine life: Spiritual, Temporal, Wealth, and Food/Drink. I tied it together with that silly backstory I previously posted.

I did well, I learned a lot, and met some wonderful people. Although I did not win the category I entered, I did go home with an autocrat’s prize, that is a lovely HUGE book of Italian Renaissance paintings that is totally drool worthy. I can’t wait to do this again, I think next year my “persona” will be Roman Egyptian. 😉

Artifacts of a Life. IT’S HERE.

On the discovery of the artifacts:

While on my backpacking across Sicily, I decided to stop at an inn for the night in the city of Syracuse. The inn, which was more of a bed and breakfast by American standards, was in an old annex to an even older house. I’m not one for architecture, but if I had to guess, it was built during the baroque period, with some parts perhaps even earlier, but knowing how homes in the older parts of the world had a tendency to be rebuilt many times, it was difficult to say.

I was the only guest for the evening, and the older couple who ran the establishment put out their nightly assortment of rich Mediterranean pastries and gave me a unique beverage that tasted of honey and vinegar. Not wanting to be rude, I accepted the drink and cookies without question, and joined them at their table. Meeting locals make these journeys more enjoyable, with the exception of course, being the language barrier. My Italian was shaky at best, the same with their English, but I learned that the drink was an ancient recipe, one that would revitalize me after my long day of backpacking through the city.  After some additional language struggles, I did manage to communicate the purpose of my trip.

“I’m studying to be a classical archaeologist, and I enjoy trekking through ancient regions.”

The couple became incredibly excited, and without a beat, asked, in perfect form, “Can you speak Greek?” The conversation officially began.

The couple, named Marco and Maria, claimed they had a fine collection of artifacts they wished for me to look at. They explained that Maria’s family had roots in the Byzantine Empire, and Marco’s had hailed from a town in Thrace. They had sought refuge in Italy when the Ottoman Empire sacked Constantinople in 1453, bringing only what they could carry. I was intrigued, and yet somewhat unsure if these older Sicilians were simply trying to pull a joke on me. One can never be too cautious when traveling alone. Reluctantly, I agreed to view their so-called collection.­­

Maria took my hand gently, and we followed her husband into a parlor, where he slid several modern cedar chests into the floor. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting, but I do know that when they were opened, I nearly stumbled back. These weren’t just any artifacts; these were museum-quality heirlooms that spanned generations. Jewelry, silks, pearls, Bibles, manuscripts, this was an unbelievable haul of personal, priceless treasures that had been preserved lovingly to protect a lost cultural identity.

Maria reached into one of the chests, and removed a few items that were gingerly wrapped in stained ancient silk. She placed them out before me: A mosaic with a dolphin on it, a necklace of gold, garnets and pearls, and an Orthodox icon of the Archangel Michael. I sat and blinked. These were not the typical goods of a poor, refugee family.

“My grandmother told me as a young woman that these are the oldest.” Maria began, “From before the Crusades. Her name was Anna, and she was part of the imperial family in Constantinople.”

I knelt down to get a closer look, and she lifted the necklace for me to see. “I was told that when my ancestors fled the city after it had been destroyed by the Turks, they had to save what they could from the old homes and graves. Looting had already begun by the infidels, so they had to hurry. The necklace they were able to save from Anna’s grave. The icon was in the family crypt, and the tile was once part of a large floor in the palace apartment that Anna was said to have lived in. Dolphins are a symbol of our family, you see, and also the old symbol of Syracuse before the times of Rome. My family goes back before the times of Alexander.”

I was unsure of the provenance of anything, but I promised Maria that if she would let me take pictures, I could bring them home and do research, then send her all the information. She agreed, and then I proceeded to go through the rest of their impressive collection. I turned in for the night as my mind reeled on what it would have been like to have been the last of the Byzantines, fleeing with what bits and pieces I could from the crumbling remains of the once glistening empire.

The next morning, as I prepared to leave for my journey, Maria and Marco saw me off with a small package of leftover pastry and a cup of strong Italian coffee…and a small box with the artifacts of the life of Anna, Maria’s eleventh century ancestor. Despite my protests, she urged that I keep them as a gift. She had no daughters of her own to pass them on, and this way I could study them, and perhaps place them in a museum for the rest of future generations to enjoy. The final parting gift was a small bottle of vinegary smelling syrup. Marco told me this was called oxymel, the beverage they had served me when I arrived, it was to be diluted in water, and used just as the Romans and Byzantines did centuries ago.

I placed the goodies into my already-full backpack, but allowed myself to take on the additional burden for these people who had allowed me, a stranger, into their home and hearts for nothing more than a night.

I present for you these artifacts today.

Sincerely,

Angela L. Costello
University of Rhode Island