Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Grave Strikes Gold

I have mentioned St.-Denis in Paris as the first church in the Gothic style. That project was a re-building of an earlier church—a church, in fact, that would be notable to historians even if it had not been turned into an architectural wonder by Abbot Suger.

Ring inscribed to Aregund (ARNEGUNDIS)
Originally, the structure was a martyrium—a shrine to the martyr Saint Denis, whose head had been carried to that spot (by his decapitated body) while preaching a sermon. This would have been some time in the 3rd century. Dagobert, a King of the Franks (c.603-639), built an abbey on the spot, preserving the crypts that had been installed over the centuries to house kings of France and important figures. The first mention of a church is of one begun in the reign of Pepin the Short (c.714-768), whose son, Charlemagne, finished it. Then, of course, Abbot Suger in the 12th century re-worked much of it into what stands today. All of the building and re-building went upwards, and what was below the surface was untouched for centuries, until later scholars decided to examine the crypts.

Some of the crypts are not marked well. Knowing a list of interments, however, scholars could use a process of elimination along with various dating techniques and even DNA testing to determine the identity of the subjects. There's also direct evidence. An archaeologist and art historian in 1959, examining the contents of one unlabeled sarcophagus, struck gold. Along with the remarkably well-preserved clothing on a female body, he found a gold ring inscribed to Aregund.

Belt clasp from Aregund's jewelry collection
Aregund was one of the wives of Clothar I (511-561), an early Frankish king in the line that led to Dagobert. Her burial provided insight into clothing of the 6th century, but also into how wealthy the early Frankish kings were:
The deceased wore a violet-coloured silk skirt, held in place by a large leather belt that had a sumptuously decorated buckle plate and buckle counter-plate. Her reddish-brown silk tunic, decorated with gold braid, was fastened with a pair of round brooches with a garnet cloisonné decoration. [source]
To be frank,* there are some who believe the remains belong to another noblewoman who lived decades later. Most of the reasoning is based on the age of the sarcophagus. The arguments neglect the simple possibility that Aregund was re-interred—not an uncommon occurrence. Even if the identity were up for debate, however, the value of the contents as a glimpse into 7th century Frankish culture is incalculable.

*Yes, that's a pun.

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