Thousands of votive figurines found at Greek island sanctuary

An excavation of the ancient acropolis on the Cycladic island of Kythnos has unearthed more than 2,000 intact votive figurines deposited by worshippers at the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone over the course of seven centuries. Hundreds of clay figurines of women, children, actors, Dionysian characters, pigs, turtles, lions, rams, birds and many other animals were recovered, as were hundreds of lamps, miniature vases, marble and alabaster vessels, copper, silver bone and glass jewelry.

One of the oldest settlements in the Cycladic Islands, the ancient city of Kythnos was continuously inhabited from the 12th century B.C. to the 7th century A.D. The sanctuary complex was built on the northern part of the plateau overlooking the ocean. It was constructed in stages, with the earliest building dating to the 7th century B.C. The temple complex was in active use until the 4th century A.D.

Recent excavations have focused on three buildings (3, 4 and 6). In 2021, votive offerings were found under the last floor of Building 5, but the motherload of votive figurines was discovered in Building 3. They were concentrated in the abandoned embankments in the eastern side of the building. Natural recesses in the rock walls appear to have been used as niches for votive offerings. Another concentration was found along the south wall of the western part of the building. Flat stones projecting off the wall at regular intervals at the same height suggest there was once a long wooden shelf where votive objects were left.

An inscribed monumental slab was found inside the door of Building 3. It had been moved from its original location. The inscription dates to the late Hellenistic period and is the name of a magistrate, likely an official of the sanctuary itself. Several inscribed drinking vessels and votives were also found referring to the two deities of the sanctuary.

The excavation by Greece’s University of Thessaly and the Culture Ministry also found luxury pottery imported from other parts of Greece, ornate lamps and fragments of ritual vases used in the worship of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis, an ancient Athens suburb.

It is unclear to what extent the site on Kythnos was associated with Eleusis — one of the most important religious centers in ancient Greece, where the goddesses were worshipped during secret rites that were only open to initiates forbidden to speak of what they saw. The sanctuary at Eleusis is known to have owned land on the island.

Oldest decoratively carved wood in Britain found in peat

A piece of oak found in a peat layer during construction work has been radiocarbon dated to between 4640 and 4605 B.C., making it the oldest decoratively carved wood in Britain. It predates the previous record-holder, an oak post carved with wave and eye shapes found in Maerdy, Wales, by 400 years.

The timber was discovered in 2019 by landowner and retired urological surgeon Derek Fawcett in a trench he had dug for the foundations of a new workshop on his property in Boxford, West Berkshire. It was recovered about five feet beneath the land surface from a paleochannel inside a peat layer. The anaerobic environment of peat preserved the wood for thousands of years.

After it was hosed off, carved markings emerged on several of the faces, including 10 cut notches on one long side and finer notches spaced further apart on the other long side. Fawcett reported the discovery to West Berkshire Council archaeologists who in turn consulted experts at Historic England to analyze the artifact.

The purpose of the markings on this piece of timber is not known, but they are reminiscent of the decoration seen in early Neolithic pottery and are also believed to be similar to the body decoration on the Shigir Idol – a wooden sculpture found in the Ural Mountains of Russia which, at over 12,000 years old, is believed to be the oldest example of carved wood in the world.

Janine Lewis, Executive Member for Culture and Leisure, West Berkshire:

“We are very grateful to the landowner for alerting us to this unexpected discovery, and to Historic England for providing the specialist analysis which has revealed the astonishingly early date of this mysterious artefact. Whilst West Berkshire has long been known in archaeological circles as nationally important for its Middle Stone Age sites, these are predominantly in the Kennet Valley and are Early Mesolithic. The Boxford timber by contrast was found preserved in peat by the River Lambourn and dates from the end of this prehistoric period of hunter-gatherer lifestyle, adding to the significance of this component of our district’s historic environment.”

Derek Fawcett has donated the timber to the West Berkshire Museum in Newbury. When study and conservation is complete, the wood will go on display there.

15th c. altar panel returned to museum 44 years after theft

A 15th century altar panel stolen on November 13, 1979, from the York Art Gallery has been returned after turning up at auction. It was Duke’s Auctions’ experts who spotted the possible connection to the long-lost York panel and pulled it from the auction. They asked the Art Loss Register to look into its history, and they concluded that it was indeed the panel stolen 44 years ago.

Duke’s had come to auction off the panel after examining the contents of a house in the Southampton area, but the vendor knew nothing of the panel’s background, having inherited it from her father. Schwinge believes the original collector most likely bought it at a market or an auction house without knowing its provenance.

“We told the daughter that the painting was stolen 50 years ago and she was quite happy that it was simply returned to the museum,” Schwinge said. “No money changed hands at all. We are so grateful to her for being so straightforward about it.

The gold-ground double-sided painting of the Nuremberg School was one of a pair donated to the museum by Francis Dennis Lycett Green in 1957. He had acquired them from a London art gallery in 1956 and donated them to the York museum. He was its most important benefactor, having given the York Art Gallery his entire painting collection of 150 pieces in 1955.

The front on the altarpiece depicts three saint bishops against a gold background. The figure on the left is St. Nicholas. He is holding a book with three gold balls, representing Santa’s throwing gold into the windows of three impoverished women for their dowries. In the middle is St. James of Tarentaise. On the right is St. Germanus of Paris, holding the key given to him by St. Peter in a prophetic dream.

On the verso side is St. Lawrence holding a gridiron (representing his martyrdom by roasting) on the left. In the middle is St. Sebald, patron saint of Nuremberg, holding a model of the church that bears his name. On the right side is the Archangel Gabriel holding a furled banner with part of his greeting to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (Ave Maria Gratia Plena).

The panel’s pair, which is still in the York Art Gallery, depicts Dominican saints. Against the gold background are St. Catherine of Alexandria on the left, St. Barbara in the middle and St. Dominic on the right. On the other side are St. Catherine of Siena on the left, St. Ursula in the middle and St. Thomas Aquinas on the right.

There is no ownership information about the panels before 1930 when they first appeared at auction in London. German scholars attribute the panels to the workshop of Hans Pleydenwurff, one of the pre-eminent artists working in Nuremberg in the late 15th century. The York panels began as the wings of a larger altarpiece, perhaps the Catherine of Siena altarpiece made by Pleydenwurff’s workshop for the Dominican convent in Nuremberg.

The panel is now undergoing examination and conservation at the York Art Gallery. When the work is complete, the prodigal panel will be reunited on display with its sibling.

Roman perfume identified as patchouli

Residue of perfume found in Roman mausoleum under a private back yard in the town of Carmona, southwestern Spain, has been identified as Pogostemon cablin, aka patchouli. This is the first time a perfume from the Roman era has been conclusively identified.

The mausoleum was discovered in 2019 in the garden of a private home during renovations. The homeowner was lowering and leveling the land and demolishing a section of an old concrete wall when an arched hole emerged beneath it. Looking into the hole, the owner spied a vaulted roof. He notified the Municipal Archeology Service of the Seville City Council who dispatched an archaeologist to examine the structure.

They found a burial chamber consisting of eight loculi (burial niches), six of them containing cinerary urns of different shapes and materials (limestone, glass) and funerary objects. Two of the loculi were empty. Of the six, three contained the remains of men, and the other three the remains of women. The two empty ones show no sign of ever having been occupied.

The mausoleum was likely the tomb a wealthy local family. The vaulted ceiling and walls of the chamber were decorated with geometric intersecting lines in a vivid red and the quality of the objects point to the family having been very wealthy. The tomb had never been broken into, looted or damaged. It was found intact with the cinerary remains and funerary offerings including pots, plates, glass and ceramic drinking vessels.

Loculus number seven held an egg-shaped lead case with an egg-shaped lid. Inside the lead container was a glass cinerary urn with a lid and two large handles. Inside the closed glass urn were the remains of a cloth bag, three round amber beads and a delicate unguentarium (ointment jar) carved out of rock crystal with a sealed dolomite stopper. Inside was a solidified mass.

The grave dates to the late 1st century B.C. or the early 1st century A.D. and the vessel was so effectively sealed with bitumen and the dolomite stopper that it was still unbroken when it was found 2,000 years later. This gave archaeologists the unique opportunity to analyze the uncontaminated contents of a Roman perfume bottle.

Researchers deployed techniques such as X-ray diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscopy–energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM–EDS), micro-Raman (µ-Raman) and Fourier transform-infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopies, and gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) to discover the chemical composition of the solid mass inside the rock crystal unguentarium and of the lid sealant.

Using bitumen to seal and waterproof the dolomite stopper was quite plausible since the unguentarium might have been made in a perfume workshop from another place in the Roman empire and subsequently purchased by the owners of the tomb. Therefore, ensuring that the unguentarium would hold its content intact for a long time required using a tightly sealed, waterproofed stopper To our knowledge, this is possibly the first time a perfume from Roman times has been identified. Based on the GC/MS analysis of the sample, the perfume in question was patchouli. The results are consistent with classical works according to which a perfume consisted of at least two different substances: an essential oil (or the plant leaves from which it was extracted) and a fatty material. The unguentarium contents’ composition is consistent with that of an extract of patchouli mixed with vegetable fat as inferred from the presence of β-sitosterol, stigmasterol and squalene. Additionally, we succeeded in identifying the material of the unguentarium stopper, which was dolomite—a previously unreported choice for this type of object.

Largest Roman domus in northern Italy reopens to public

The Domus of Titus Macro in Aquileia on Italy’s northern Adriatic coast has reopened to the public after a years-long project to construct a protective roof, restore its famous mosaics and excavate never-before-seen areas of it.

Aquileia was founded as a Latin Rights colony by Roman senators Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, Lucius Manlius Acidinus and Gaius Flaminius in 181 B.C. Its location on the river Natiso at the head of the Adriatic had been the endpoint of the profitable ancient trade in Baltic amber for centuries, and it was of military importance to Rome as a bulwark against the Celtic tribes of Cisalpine Gaul.

The senators seeded Aquileia with a large population from the start. A full 3,000 families settled the new city, reaching a population of 20,000 within a few years. Gold was found nearby in 130 B.C., and several Roman roads passed through the area, increasing its prosperity and significance all the more. At its peak in the 2nd century, the population reached an estimated 200,000 making it one of the largest cities in the world. (By contrast, today Aquileia has a population of 3,300.)

Titus Macro built his mansion in the burgeoning metropolis of the 1st century B.C. Occupying half of an entire insula of ancient Aquileia, an area of more than 18,000 square feet, the Domus of Titus Macro is one of the largest Roman homes ever discovered in northern Italy. It was lavishly decorated with mosaic floors of high quality from the 3D-effect checkerboard in the atrium to a dog hunting a stag

The name ascribed to the villa came from the inscription T. MACR. found on a stone weight with an iron handle, but the dwelling had many owners over time as it was continuously occupied until the Lombard invasion of the 6th century A.D. In addition to the private spaces — the tablinium (reception room), the garden, the dining room, living rooms, bedroom, kitchen — there were also four workshops on the eastern side. One of them was a bakery, as evidenced by the remains of the oven.

The mosaic floors of the villa were first encountered in the 19th century when Aquileia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As was the practice at the time, the most glamorous mosaics were torn up and exhibited in museums and the site itself was neglected. It was privately owned until 1958 when the state acquired the villa and it was treated for the first time as archaeological patrimony worthy of attention and research in situ. The mosaics that had been removed were reinstalled and the site opened to the public.

A new systematic excavation of the domus took place between 2009 and 2015. Conservators also used this time to restore the mosaics. The site was closed to make possible a major roofing project to protect its famously spectacular mosaic floors and to suggest with modern materials the original structure of the ancient mansion. The new additions were completed last year and now the dwelling is open to the public again.

The Aquileia Foundation has created a wee amuse-bouche video of 3D recreations of the domus as it looked in its heyday.

In this video, the director of Aquileia Foundation, archaeologist Cristiano Tiussi Erica, introduces the site, explaining the villa’s history and significance. You can see overhead views of the new protective roof and how well it integrates into the remains of domus, as well as the restored mosaics. It’s in Italian but the English captions are bearable.