Early Imperial burial ground found in Nîmes

October 2nd, 2022

A cemetery dating to the 1st-2nd century A.D. with an unusual variety of burial types has been discovered in Nîmes, southern France. So far the interred remains of fifty individuals have been recorded, laid to rest in inhumation burials, cremation urns and funerary pyres. The graves contain an array of grave goods, primarily pottery, in excellent condition.

Absorbed into the modern city of Nîmes in the 18th century, the area under excavation was just outside the southern perimeter of the ancient city. It was less than 165 feet from the Augustan-era city walls and one of the main gates was less than a couple hundred feet west along the wall. The neighborhood has been neglected archaeologically until now, so the excavation has shed new light on the little-known history of peri-urban spaces of Roman towns.

The earliest remains found in the dig were agricultural: furrows (sulci in Latin) that were dug to plant vines. They have not been conclusively dated, but they pre-date the funerary use of the space in the 1st century A.D.  Of the fifty individuals identified in the burial, all but two are adults. The tombs are divided into groupings, but only two of them on the western side are clearly delineated. The eastern side, which contains most of the burials, is more ambiguously arranged, but one section has the remains of walls outlining an enclosure that contains at least seven burials.

There are a number of wooden coffin inhumations. The wood is gone, but the iron nails remain in place. The coffins were then placed in cut graves. Stone blocks were added outside the coffin; some thickly line the grave walls. One coffin burial was placed in a stone-lined grave and topped with a cover slab. In this grave the deceased was unusually positioned on his side facing east, as if he were reclining for his final funerary banquet. Another inhumation has a secondary cremation deposit built into it. To the deceased’s left (south) is a coffer lined with ceramic tiles containing a cinerary urn and grave goods.

One remarkable cinerary vase, which is very large and in excellent condition, was found inside a masonry loculus (a niche made to contain funerary remains). Before the large vessel was placed in the loculus, a small ceramic vase was broken and used as the foundation for the ossuary. Two jugs, one ceramic vase, one ceramic oil lamp and one small glass balsamarium (unguent/perfume jar) were then added on the sides and in front of the ossuary which towers over them.

Another exceptional cremation burial consists of a coffer cut out of a single stone containing a precious glass cinerary vase topped by its glass lid still in place, both intact. Inside the coffer with the urn is a ceramic jug, an oil lamp, a cup, a goblet, another glass balsamarium, three wooden styluses, a fragment of faunal bone and two bronze mirrors.


Roman “refrigerator” found in Bulgaria

October 1st, 2022

Excavations of the Roman legionary camp in Novae, northern Bulgaria, have revealed the ancient equivalent of a refrigerator: a chamber made of large, flat ceramic slabs to keep perishable items cold. It was found beneath the floor of a room in the military barracks and still contains fragments of cooked animal bones. It is rare to find a built-in cooler still intact inside a structure because they were frequently broken in the reconstruction of buildings.

Novae was founded in 45 A.D. as a castrum (military camp) guarding the strategically important border of Moesia Inferior at the southernmost bend of the Lower Danube. The first iteration was a timber-and-earth fort built by the Legio VIII Augusta. They were replaced in 69 A.D. by the Legio I Italica which had been transferred there from Gaul to fortify the border against Dacian incursions. They expanded the fort and built permanent stone barracks, a military hospital and baths. Legio I remained there for almost four centuries until it was ousted by invading Huns in 441 A.D.

The cooler was unearthed in a room in the headquarters building (principia) of the Legio I Italica. In addition to the fragments of baked bone inside the container, archaeologists discovered pieces of a ceramic bowl and charcoal which may have been used as a censer to deter pests from invading the storage.

Other finds made in this year’s dig season include ceramic and lead conduits supplying water to the baths and a system of channels to drain water from them. Lead pipes in situ are unusual because they were often melted down to reuse the valuable lead. Two altars were also notable finds: one dedicated to the Mithraic deity Sol Invictus by the legion’s actuarius (in charge of payroll and provisioning); the other dedicated to the Capitoline Triad by the signifer, the standard bearer, of Legio I. Very few inscriptions of any kind, let alone dedicated altars, by men who held these important positions have been found.

Archaeologists discovered remains from the early wooden fort of Legio VIII Augusta: a series of walls, a smattering of remains from the barracks and one detached dwelling that contains querns, weaving weights, fishing weights, bone pits, pottery fragments and coins. Very few remains of that first fort have been unearthed in the more than six decades of excavations at Novae, so this agglomeration is of great archaeological import.


Norway’s National Museum acquires rare Artemisia Gentileschi painting

September 30th, 2022

The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo has acquired a rare work by Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1639-40). Donated to the museum by philanthropic the DNB Savings Bank Foundation, it is one of very few paintings by the Baroque master that is unambiguous in its attribution because she signed her name in Judith’s sword. The painting was only previously known from an old black and white photograph, so until this acquisition, art historians had no idea it was signed.

Judith slaying Holofernes was a subject Artemisia revisited repeatedly. This is one of her later versions. The fine weave of the canvas indicates it was not of Italian origin, which means she has to have painted it when she was in London working with her father and brothers on commissions from King Charles I between the end of 1638 and her return to Naples in 1640.

The painting will join other works by Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Museum. These include the early work Saint Catharine of Alexandria (1614–15), on loan from a private collection, and The Penitent Mary Magdalene (1640). The National Museum also holds an earlier Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, painted by Artemisia’s father Orazio Gentileschi (between 1608 and 1612), on which she must have worked while she was in training at her father’s studio. The new acquisition means that the National Museum is the museum with the most works by Artemisia Gentileschi outside of Italy.

“We are happy that this masterpiece now will be on display at the National Museum in Oslo. Now, the museum can show four paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi, and this is rare for any museum,” says Manager for Art and culture in the DNB Savings Bank Foundation, Anders Bjørnsen.

The painting will only be on display for a few weeks before it travels to Naples for an exhibition, Artemisia Gentileschi in Naples, at the Gallerie d’Italia. The exhibition focuses on the decade she spent living and working Naples (1630-1640), which includes the two year detour in London. Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes will return to Oslo in March 2023.


Unique Greek ritual wash-basin unearthed

September 29th, 2022

Excavations at the ancient Greek city of Klazomenai, modern-day Urla near Izmir, western Turkey, have unearthed a unique perirrhanterion, (a ritual wash basin) painted with mythological figures and a chariot race. It dates to the 6th century B.C. Large sections of the vessel and its base preserve geometric borders painted over an embossed relief. Within the borders are sphinxes, sirens and chariots following each other around the cylindrical base. The perirrhanterion is one of a kind; no other examples have ever been found with elaborate figural paintings.

The perirrhanterion was a shallow water basin used in temples for ritual purification. Supported by a central column, the basin was placed at the entrance to a temple or sanctuary for worshipers to cleanse themselves before entering. The earliest of them date to the 7th century B.C. The Archaic examples adorned the central column with supportive karyatids and animals, but the form was pared down over time. By the 4th century B.C., perirrhanteria had lost the decorative supports and evolved into a more simple basin-on-column design which remained the standard until the demise of paganism.

Perirrhanteria are are usually found in fragments. Some of the columns, especially the extra-sturdy Archaic ones, seem to have made it through the destruction of the temples a little more intact, see this beautiful base  supported by six karyatids found just south of the Parthenon, for example. The basins themselves range from largely undecorated (as in the case of this fragmented marble basin from Naukratis, a Greek colony on the Nile Delta, whose only surviving adornment is the first three letters of an inscription to Apollo) to painted in simple color blocks or carved in relief patterns.

Klazomenai was one of the 12 cities of the Ionian League. Its major industry was the production and export of olive oil, a business which relied on pottery vessels for storage and transportation. The city became the center of ceramic production in Western Anatolia and its vessels have been found as far away as France and Northern Africa. Its most famously ceramic works are the elaborately painted clay sarcophaguses manufactured there between 550 B.C. and 470 B.C. They were decorated with ornamental motifs (Greek key, palmettes, egg-and-dart), mythological figures and scenes from battle, the hunt and athletic competitions. Most of the painting is in the black-figure technique with details and accents in white. The painting on the newly-discovered perirrhanterion is also black-figure with white accents and shares motifs with the famed sarcophagi.


Infant jar burial found in ancient Anemurium

September 28th, 2022

Ancient amphora burial of neonate (left) with adult burial (right). Photo courtesy Ministry of Culture and Tourism.The skeletal remains of four individuals, three adults and one infant buried in a broken amphora, have been discovered in the ancient port city of Anemurium, modern-day Mersin on the Mediterranean coast of southcentral Turkey. This is the first neonate amphora burial discovered in Anemurium.

The four individuals were buried together, but not with the same care. The newborn was laid to rest in the amphora and neatly buried. The three adults were buried directly in the ground in a more haphazard arrangement. Archaeologists believe this was a family group, and that the baby who died before it barely lived received special funerary attention.

Pot burials, known as enchytrismos, were extremely common in the Greek world and the primary practice for the burial of fetuses, babies and small children. For example in just one necropolis, the Kylindra Cemetery on the island of Astylapaia, there are than 3,400 pot burials of infants, the largest assemblage of ancient children’s remains in the world.

Greco-Roman funerary practices required burial of the dead outside of city walls, often in necropolises in use for generations. Because infant and child mortality was so high, babies and children under three were often buried outside of formal funerary spaces. In this instance, the baby was buried under what appears to have been a colonnaded street, not in the city’s necropolis.

This year’s excavation has unearthed seven burials at this site — five adults, one child and the baby in the amphora. Last year’s excavation at the Anemurium necropolis unearthed eight burials, so if the site where the amphora burial was found was in fact a street, it had an unusually high number of graves dug on it. Archaeologists hypothesize that there may have been a church in this area, not a colonnaded city street, and that the deceased were buried in the churchyard.


Mosaic found in caliph’s palace

September 27th, 2022

The excavation of the caliph’s palace of Khirbat al-Minya, built on the shore of the Sea of ​​Galilee in the 8th century, has unearthed an ancient mosaic with Nilotic scenes of animal and plants that predates the construction of the palace. Archaeologists from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) conducted geomagnetic surface surveys of the site and dug test pits wherever the results indicated the presence of construction work like walls and flooring lurking under the soil. The test pits proved the effectiveness of the magnetometry findings as the team encountered basalt structures with plastered walls and mosaic floors.

The plants portrayed in one of the mosaics are particularly remarkable as they have the long, curved stems typical of those also depicted in so-called Nile-scene mosaics created in the 5th to 6th centuries. The mosaic’s images of the flora and fauna native to the Nile valley symbolized the life-giving power of the mighty river with its annual floods guaranteeing Egypt’s agricultural fertility. That explains why both late-antique churches, such as that in the nearby Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, and luxurious dwellings in cities of late antiquity were decorated with Nile-scene mosaics.

The recently discovered mosaic, together with related ceramic finds dating to the 5th to 7th centuries, show that the settlement on the shores of the lake was already thriving centuries before the work on the caliph’s palace had commenced. Its original inhabitants were either Christians or Jews and they were subsequently joined by a small Islamic community, for whom the caliph had a side entrance constructed in the early 8th century so that they could access his palace mosque. The unearthed ceramics have revealed that the site remained occupied under the control of the Umayyad and then Abbasid caliphates from the 7th to the 11th century. New construction projects were initiated in this period during which parts of the mosaics fell victim to pickaxes wielded by religiously inspired iconoclasts, sections of old walls were demolished, and the stones were transported away for reuse elsewhere. The remains finally became the location of a graveyard in which the dead were buried, in accordance with Muslim custom, lying on their side with their faces directed towards Mecca.

The combination of geomagnetic surveys and targeted excavation allowed archaeologists to make direct hits instead of having to cover a lot of ground in limited time. The magnetic probes track minute changes in the earth’s magnetic field caused by any interference under the surface. Archaeological remains — walls, floors, fireplaces, hearths, ovens — can be mapped with accuracy before the first shovel breaks ground.


Roman anchor retrieved from North Sea

September 26th, 2022

A large anchor from the Roman era has been recovered from the seabed of the southern North Sea off the coast of Suffolk. Made of wrought iron, the anchor is 6’6″ long and weighs 200 lbs. It has not been conclusively dated yet, but features of its design and manufacture point to it being a Roman anchor between 2,000 and 1,600 years old. An anchor that size could only have been used on a very large vessel. Estimated to have been around 500-600 tons, it would have been one of the largest Roman merchant ships.

The Classis Britannica was the regional fleet of the Roman province of Britannia and the first navy of Britain. Although very little physical maritime evidence has been discovered, it operated from the mid-first century to the mid-third century and employed merchant vessels to transport foodstuffs, troops, horses and war machinery such as catapults and rams. […]

Brandon Mason from Maritime Archaeology Ltd spent hours monitoring the anchor while it lay at the bottom of the sea. He was on board the Glomar Wave when the anchor was brought more than 140 feet to the surface and transported to shore.

He said: “Everything points to this being a Roman anchor of almost 2,000 years old, which is an incredibly rare piece of history. If this date is confirmed, it would be hard to overstate its significance – we only know about three pre-Viking anchors from northern European waters outside the Mediterranean region and only two actually survived.

“We believe this find could be the oldest and one of the largest surviving examples, giving us hard evidence of the incredible amount of activity that must have been going on in the waters in Roman times, but that we know relatively little about.

The anchor was first spotted in 2018 during a seabed survey before construction of the East Anglia ONE offshore wind farm. Construction proceeded, but the anchor was constantly monitored and protected by an exclusion zone. Long-term conservation concerns prompted maritime archaeologists to raise the anchor last year.

The anchor is currently undergoing conservation, study and imaging to help narrow down its age and origin. Windfarm owners ScottishPower Renewables have commissioned a detailed analysis of the anchor’s material which will employ never-before-used scientific techniques. After that work is completed, the anchor will go on permanent display at Colchester + Ipswich Museums in 2025.


After 10 years, the Fenland bog oak table

September 25th, 2022

Way back in the mists of 2012, farmers discovered a massive trunk of prehistoric oak preserved for 5,000 years in a Cambridgeshire peat bog. The trunk was 44 feet long and weighed five tons and it was only a section from the middle of the original oak, one of many Ent-like giants that ruled the Fenland Basin before rising levels turned the ancient high forest into a bog.

Bog oak is England’s only native black timber, prized for its rich color and thick stripe grain. Usually the finds are much more modest, however, and bog oak is used for inlays or smaller cabinetry. This giant was so huge and in such spectacular condition — no disease or parasites in life, almost no decomposition after death — that bog oak specialists decided the only way to do justice to its majesty was to saw it into planks the length of the entire trunk and create a massive table out of them that would go on public view.

Thus the Fenland Black Oak Project was born. Dubbed the Jubilee Oak because it was discovered in the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the oak was raised and quarter sawn into full-length planks. The planks were then dried in custom-built kilns 50 feet long. It took nine months to extract the water from the wood. A total of 1795 liters (474 gallons) of water was extracted; the planks lost half their thickness, a quarter of their width and 1.8 tons of weight.

Designers then came up with an almost sculptural concept to show off this beautiful wood: a drop-leaf table mounted on a bronze understructure and four pilons for legs. The two outer planks are hinged to the bronze so they can be folded down. It’s even on wheels so this gigantic table can be moved easily by just two people. Craftspeople had to invent new techniques to manage planks of this size, including a whole new join known as the River Joint for its meandering shape.

The estimated time of completion was 2013. They turned out to be off by nine years. The table was completed in 2022, just in time for Queen Elizabeth’s II Platinum Jubilee. Inscriptions were added to opposite ends of the table marking its discovery in the Diamond Jubilee year and completion in the Platinum Jubilee year.

The finished work found a suitably majestic setting for its enormousness in Ely Cathedral which was built on drained Fens, the same environment that saved the oak for so long, and is also the third longest medieval cathedral in England, so a perfect context for a 44-foot-long bog oak table. It has been placed on the stone floor under the Octagon Tower, a unique 14th century structure considered to be one of the masterpieces of medieval English architecture.

The table was installed at Ely in May and will remain there for visitors to enjoy until March 2023.


Secrets of Vermeer’s Milkmaid revealed

September 24th, 2022

A new study of Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece The Milkmaid has revealed painted-over details of his original composition that shed new light on his artistic process.

Next year, the Rijksmuseum is bringing together 27 of the 35 known paintings by Vermeer in a landmark exhibition dedicated to the 17th century Delft master. There will be works on loan from the Frick Collection in New York, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

In the run-up to the new exhibition that opens in February of 2023, the Rijksmuseum has been working with the Mauritshuis and the University of Antwerp to study all of the works by Vermeer that are currently in the Netherlands using state-of-the-art analytical technology. The four Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum’s permanent collection — The Milkmaid, The Little Street, The Love Letter and Woman Reading a Letter — have been photographed in ultra-high resolution, scanned with Optical Coherence Tomography, Macro-XRF and Short Wavelength Infrared Reflectance (SWIR), an imaging technology used for industrial inspections and military applications.

It was the SWIR imaging that brought to light two objects Vermeer had painted over before completing them on The Milkmaid: a jug holder with jugs hanging from the handles behind the milkmaid’s head, and a fire basket at her feet. The presence of something in those areas had been noted in previous X-rays, but the older technology could not make out what they were. Experts thought it might be a fireplace behind her hand. The detail is so much greater that conservators were able to identify the jug holder and the fire basket from the incomplete underpainting. Vermeer’s estate inventory records that he had a jug holder in his pantry and a fire basket (used to hold glowing coals to warm a baby’s bedding, clothing and the baby itself).

This discovery sheds entirely new light on Vermeer’s methods. The general assumption was that the artist produced his small oeuvre very slowly, and always worked with extreme precision. This view is now being revised. A hastily applied thick line of black paint can be seen beneath the milkmaid’s left arm. This sketch shows clearly that Vermeer first quickly painted the scene in light and dark tones before developing the detail.

A similar preliminary sketch in black paint can be seen on the wall behind the young woman’s head. By comparing the results produced using the latest research techniques, it has now become clear that Vermeer used black paint to sketch a jug holder and several jugs, but didn’t develop them any further. The jug holder, a plank of wood with nobs attached, was used in 17th-century kitchens for hanging up multiple ceramic jugs by the handle. A pantry in Vermeer’s own home contained a similar item, and a miniature version of just such a jug holder can be found elsewhere in the Rijksmuseum, in Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house (c. 1690).

The new discoveries are explained with great visuals in this video which is the third in a series the Rijksmuseum has produced about its research into Vermeer’s masterworks. See the second video in the series, which follows conservators as they image the four works in the museum’s permanent collection, here. The first video in the series focuses on The Milkmaid and The Little Street.


3,000-year-old canoe recovered from Wisconsin lake

September 23rd, 2022

3,000-year-old dugout canoe on the bed of Lake Mendota. Photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society.Less than a year after a 1,200-year-old dugout canoe was recovered from Lake Mendota in Wisconsin, a second even more ancient canoe has been found. Radiocarbon analysis dates it to 1000 B.C., making it the oldest canoe ever found in the Great Lakes region by 1,000 years and the earliest direct archaeological evidence of the use of water transportation in the region. Archaeologists were so surprised by the results that they had the wood sample re-tested three times.

The 14.5-foot canoe was first spotted in May by Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen. It was discovered not even 100 yards from the one discovered in 2021 at the bottom of a drop-off in the lakebed. Their proximity may be more than coincidence. Archaeologists are now researching the ancient shoreline and water levels to investigate whether the canoes were kept near ancient villages that were ultimately submerged and lost.

The Wisconsin Historical Society worked with partners from the Ho-Chunk Nation and Bad River Tribe to recover it from the lakebed. Archaeologists excavated it from the lakebed by hand and raised to the surface using flotation bags. It was then transported to the State Archive Preservation Facility in Madison where the canoe recovered last year is currently undergoing conservation.

“The recovery of this canoe built by our ancestors gives further physical proof that Native people have occupied Teejop (Four Lakes) for millennia, that our ancestral lands are here and we had a developed society of transportation, trade and commerce,” said Ho-Chunk President Marlon WhiteEagle. “Every person that harvested and constructed this caašgegu (white oak) into a canoe put a piece of themselves into it. By preserving this canoe, we are honoring those that came before us. We appreciate our partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, working together to preserve part of not only our ancestors’ history but our state’s history.”

Archaeologists and Tribal members will clean and conserve the canoe together. Once cleaned, the canoe will be submerged in the same preservation tank where the younger Mendota canoe is being bathed in bio-deterrant (to prevent the growth of organisms at the canoe’s expense) and PEG (to replace the water molecules in the wood’s cells and prevent shrinking when the wood dries). They will soak in the vat for two to three years before being freeze-dried. One frozen, the wood of the canoes will be stable even when exposed to the air, so they can be displayed.





October 2022