The Middle Ages, which started around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.C. and lasted until the beginning of the Renaissance in the 1300s, is often romanticized as a time of knights in armor, jousting, castles and chivalry. But knowledge gleaned from discoveries—including ruins of medieval buildings, gravesites and artifacts—has enabled archaeologists and historians to develop a more detailed, nuanced view of life in those times. Here are six surprising finds from the era and their significance.
1. Crusader’s Sword Lost at Sea
In October 2021, after a storm shifted the sands on the bottom of the Mediterranean along the Israeli coast and exposed a treasure trove of stone anchors, pottery and other medieval artifacts, a recreational scuba diver discovered a rare and precious 39-inch iron sword, encrusted with shells and marine organisms but otherwise in well-preserved condition.
According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the weapon is 900 years old, and belonged to a knight who came to the Middle East to fight in the Crusades, in which European Christian armies fought Muslims over control of Jerusalem and other sites. How the sword, which would have been prized in its day, ended up underwater isn’t clear. But as University of London history professor Jonathan Phillips explained to The New York Times, one possibility is that it was lost during a battle on a beach, where invading Christian forces landed and often were counterattacked by Muslim defenders, or in fighting at sea.
It’s not the first time that someone has found a medieval sword underwater. In 2018, an eight-year-old girl wading in a lake in Sweden stepped on a sharp object and pulled a sword out of the water. The nearly three-foot-long weapon dated to the 5th or 6th century A.D., before the rise of the Vikings.
2. Caves Where a Hermit Ex-King May Have Lived
Archaeologists believe that several man-made caves in south Derbyshire in England may once have been home to an exiled Anglo-Saxon monarch. King Eardwulf, also known as Saint Hardulph, was deposed from the throne of Northumbria in 806 A.D., briefly reinstated in 808 A.D. and then overthrown for good two years later. According to a 2021 news release, he may have spent the rest of his life living in exile in the Anchor Church Caves, which were cut from soft sandstone rock.
The discovery makes the cave “probably the oldest intact domestic interior in the UK,” Edmund Simons, the principal investigator who led a team of researchers from the Royal Agricultural University and Wessex Archaeology, told The Guardian. While the ex-monarch was forced to live as a hermit, it wasn’t necessarily a harsh existence. The dwelling had three rooms, as well as a chapel, with doorways and windows that resemble Saxon architecture. Additionally, the ex-king may have been visited by followers who revered him as a holy man.
3. The Towering Idol
Though the Middle Ages conjures up images of Christian monks in monasteries laboring over sacred manuscripts, an eight-foot-tall wooden idol discovered in the summer of 2021 in Ireland is a reminder that paganism was still around at the beginning of the Middle Ages.
Archaeologists working with road builders found the 1,600-year-old figure in a bog in the town of Gortnacrannagh. Sculpted from an oak trunk, the idol has a human-like head and notches carved along its body, according to the Clare Herald. “Three things about the figure fascinate me,” explains Lisa M. Bitel, a dean’s professor of religion and a professor of history at the University of Southern California, and a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America.
“First, it dates to just before—or possibly around the very start of—Christianization in Ireland. St. Patrick, writing about a hundred years after the idol was made, in the fifth century, condemned “pagan” figures like this one. Second, it was found in a bog; bogs were special sites, neither water nor land, where people dumped sacrifices and the bodies of executed victims. This figure was found with animal remains and a dagger, thus clearly part of a ritual. Third, all this suggests something about religious practices in Ireland before people turned Christian.”
4. African Inhabitants of Medieval London
Analysis of DNA from the bones and teeth of 41 adults who died during the Black Death and were buried in medieval London in the mid-1300s, found that the city was more ethnically and racially diverse than once believed. As Michigan State University human osteology curator Rebecca Redfern and assistant professor of anthropology Joseph Hefner wrote in March 2021, 30 percent of those in the sample were not of white descent, and of 19 females in the sample, three were of African ancestry, while another four were of mixed heritage.
Cord J. Whitaker, an associate professor of English at Wellesley College and author of the 2019 book Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking, says that such research has disproven the once widely-held view that Medieval England and Europe were racially homogenous.
“They’ve found people who were of north African descent, but appeared to have lived in London for quite a long time,” Whitaker explains. That diversity mainly was found in large port cities that were part of international trade networks, which brought goods from Asia to Europe via Africa in what Whitaker calls a medieval version of modern globalism.
5. Castle Beneath a Prison Yard
In 2015, archaeologists uncovered walls of a Norman castle underneath a basketball court inside a former prison in Gloucester, a city in southwest England. The prison was built in the late 1700s, but the ruins of the medieval fortress beneath it date back to 1110.
According to a report by Cotswold Archaeology, the castle was a large structure with a keep (an inner, fortified tower), an enclosed courtyard, stables and a castle ditch on what later became the prison site, and a drawbridge and gate to the north.
The castle played a part in the Anarchy, a civil war in England in the mid-1100s, and was a royal residence during the reign of Henry III in the 1200s. The design resembled Canterbury Castle and the Tower of London, and visitors to the town would have seen “a powerful symbol of Norman architecture,” as Cotswold Archaeology chief executive Neil Holbrook explained to Gloucester Live.
6. Medieval Fear of Zombies
You might think that the fascination with the undead started with TV and horror movies, but archaeologists have found evidence that medieval English villagers feared that reanimated corpses would rise from the grave.
In the long-ago abandoned village of Wharram Percy, an analysis of bones from residents who died between 1000 and 1300 A.C. revealed burn marks and cuts on the skulls and upper bodies, which were apparently inflicted after death. The cut marks were in places that ruled out cannibalism as an explanation, and analysis of the skeletons’ teeth showed that they were local residents, leading scientists to conclude that the damage was inflicted to keep the dead safely in their graves.