Bone and Gold

2021. 11. 26.

In 2014, archaeologists uncovered sensational finds in Eger Castle. A 23-year-old man buried in a mass grave along with six other compatriots held a coin bag containing glittering gold coins, a sight for sore eyes!

The latest of the eight gold medals dated from 1589. But the real sensation was something else; a worn bone medallion came to light. At first glance, it might seem to be much less gripping than the gold, but the engraved decoration on it tells us a different story!  The physical injuries identified on the skeletons suggest a brutal execution 425 years ago.

 

The mass grave of soldiers killed in the siege of 1596, excavated in 2014 (Photo - László Nagy)

 

The year was 1596, 44 years after the tens of thousands of Ottoman soldiers had fled from what they considered to be the "sheepfold" of Eger Castle. After the heroic victory of the castle commander Dobó and his men in 1552, the very best Italian military engineers arrived in Eger on imperial orders to turn the castle into an impregnable fortress. They fortified the castle with their hard work and at great expense, and skilled and battle-hardened mercenaries arrived from the far west. The finest German, Walloon and Hungarian warriors faced the Ottoman forces and assembled for a siege once again. After a failed defence, the fortress fell in 1596 to the Ottomans. They spared the Hungarians but slaughtered the German defenders one by one. Our archaeologists then uncovered signs of this massacre, making this sad day in Eger's history a tangible reality. The eight gold coins found in the mass graves of the executed defenders were the pay of one of these mercenaries who died a hero.

 

Gold coins found in the mass grave in Eger castle (photo - László Nagy)

 

Gold glistening in the sunlight is a fantastic sight. However, that's not the whole story - our archaeologists uncover a worn bone medallion, which at first sight might appear less gripping than the gold, but the engraved decoration on it tells us a fascinating story.  On closer inspection, the engravings form a female figure, with the inscription 'LUCRECIA' to the left.

 

The depiction on the bone medallion excavated at Eger Castle, enlarged and redrawn_(Drawing - Balázs Kakuk)

 

But who was this enigmatic lady? And what was she doing in Eger Castle in 1596? These are questions that desperately need answering. To find the answer, we must travel back into antiquity.

Lucretia was a mytho-historical figure for whom we have no information.  The oldest mention of her dates back more than 2,000 years. First recorded by the famous Roman historian Livius, then the great poet Ovid sang her praises. Lucretia died around 510 BC. Her 'heavenly charm' (in Shakespeare's words), her spiritual virtues and her fidelity as a wife radiated perfection. According to the story, Rome was still a kingdom at the time, and the last tyrannical ruler, Sextus Tarquinius, raped Lucretia.

 

 

The raped woman then wept in front of her husband and father. Her subsequent suicide caused a public outcry in Rome, leading to the expulsion of the tyrannical Tarquinius family, the fall of the kingdom, and then the proclamation of the republic. Dante later mentioned Lucretia in his Divine Comedy, with William Shakespeare reintroducing the story in his poem 'The Rape of Lucrece', written just before the siege of Eger. In the 16th century, many Renaissance artists depicted poor Lucretia's suicide, including masters such as Dürer and Titian.

The depiction recovered from the castle of Eger shows the closest stylistic relationship in terms of pose, composition and representation to the earliest painting of Lucretia by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1518), hardly surprising given the German origin of its former owner. Its maker was probably familiar with Cranach's painting, and the Latin misspelling of the name ('Lucrecia') also suggests a Western dialect.

 

Lucas_Cranach_Lucretia's_suicide_Kunstsammlungen_der_Veste_Coburg_circa_1518

 

At last she calls to mind where hangs a piece

Of skilful painting, made for Priam's Troy;

Before the which is drawn the power of Greece,

For Helen's rape the city to destroy,

Threatening cloud-kissing Ilion with annoy;

Which the conceited painter drew so proud,

As heaven, it seem'd, to kiss the turrets bow'd.

 

Excerpt from ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, William Shakespeare, 1594

 


 

Text by Gergely Rákóczi / Exploratory archaeologist: László Nagy