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Research by economists at the University of Warwick has suggested that Medieval England was far more prosperous than previously thought, with an average income that was more than double the average per capita income of today’s poorest nations. According to the paper British Economic Growth 1270-1870, by the end of the medieval period, the majority of the British population could afford a diet that included meat, dairy products and ale, as well as occasional luxuries. Just some of today's countries believed to be poorer than Medieval England are Niger, Sierra Leone and Haiti.
Meanwhile, Oxford City Council has given the Ashmolean Museum the go-ahead for a £5 million revamp of its Egyptian galleries, as well as agreeing plans for a new fifth gallery. The museum, which dates back to the 17th century, was reopened by the queen in November last year following a £61 million refurbishment.
In Scotland, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of at least eight people during initial excavations of a 5,000-year-old Neolithic tomb site in Orkney. Fragments of skull and hip bone have been uncovered in the tomb, which was discovered in October, and the placement of the remains suggests that the site is undisturbed, making it the first undisturbed burial of a Neolithic community to be discovered in Scotland in three decades.
In art news, works belonging to the Government Art Collection are to go on show in a public London gallery for the first time in the collection’s 113-year history. The works have been chosen by political figures such as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and will include works by John Constable, William Hogarth and Lucian Freud. The show opens in June 2011 at the Whitechapel Gallery.
Elsewhere, an unpublished poem by Phillip Larkin has been heard for the first time during a BBC documentary marking the 25th anniversary of the poet’s death. The unpublished poem, entitled Dear Jake, was sent to his secretary and lover Betty Mackereth in 1976 and portrays her as his muse. Producers of the documentary, Philip Larkin and the Third Woman, discovered the poem in a lost notebook.
More than 15,000 recordings of Scottish people, many dating back 80 years, are to go online as part of a new digital archive. The £3 million project includes interviews with mill workers, crofters, travellers and farm workers in Gaelic, Doric and Scots and combines the resources of the BBC, the National Trust for Scotland's Canna Collection and Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies. The recordings can be listened to free of charge on the project website.
In auction news, a first edition copy of the Star-Spangled Banner poem, which was adopted for the US national anthem, has sold for $506,500 at auction. The publication, one of only 11 first editions of the poem still in existence, was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 after he watched the defence of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, and adopted as the US national anthem in 1931.
Elsewhere, a copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America has made auction history after it sold for more than £7 million at Sotheby’s. The 19th century tome, now dubbed the world’s most expensive book, is one of only 119 copies in existence, and contains 1,000 life-sized illustrations of nearly 500 breeds painted by Audubon during his travels across America, and took the artist 12 years to complete.
And finally, a 2,000-year-old tree, known as the Holy Thorn Tree of Glastonbury, which, according to legend, sprang from the wooden staff of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who helped Jesus off the cross, has been hacked down by vandals. The tree was chopped down during the English Civil Wars, but secret cuttings of the original were taken and planted around the town of Glastonbury, one of which was planted at the site of the first tree over 50 years ago. According to experts, the tree – known as the Crategus Monogyna Bi Flora – had originated from the Middle East and flowered at Christmas and Easter.