Mystery underground basilica reopens in Rome

December 11th, 2019

The earliest known religious basilica was a secret when it was first built in the 1st century A.D. It was ingenious constructed entirely underground by digging out the forms of the walls and pillars from the soft volcanic tufa, pouring concrete into them and then cutting away the tufa. They poured arches for the barrel vaulted and dome ceilings over the pillars and then cut out all the tufa left in the interior to create a basilica just like the ones used as public buildings above ground.

The public ones were used to do business, commercial, legal and governmental. It wasn’t until Constantine that the basilica design was used for the first churches in the 4th century. The one exception is this remarkable structure just outside the ancient walls of Rome at the Porta Maggiore. To this day we don’t know what exactly the space was used for. The mythology-heavy stucco reliefs and architectural proportions (all measurements relate to the number three) indicate it may have been a cult site for a Neopythagorean mystery religion. The dating of the mosaic floor indicate it two construction periods, one under Augustus, the second under Claudius.

When I first wrote about the magical mystery wonderland that is the Basilica Sotteranea at the Porta Maggiore in Rome, it had just opened to the public after 12 years of restoration. Visitors were allowed for the first time in decades to descend 30 feet under the Via Praenestina into the dromos, the long entrance gallery, and the atrium. They could gaze in away at the soaring walls decorated with delicate stucco figures and scenes from mythology and the barrel and dome vaults topping them.

Because of the complex environmental needs of the space — its structure and ornamentation is highly susceptible to heat, moisture and microorganism growth — only guided tours were allowed on the second and fourth Sundays of the month, reservations required. Alas, when I visited Rome two years later, the Basilica Sotterranea was no longer open. Now I know why: it was busily engaged in the next stages of conservation. Funded by the Swiss historic preservation non-profit Fondation Evergète, the vaults and apses have received much-needed attention. The entire north wall from floor to ceiling of the left nave has been restored to its stunning pristine whiteness.

Restoration is ongoing and the basilica is still an active worksite. Visitors are welcomed in the new “didactic room” in the atrium, where augmented reality visors will give people the opportunity to see the stucco reliefs and frescoes up close. On the agenda for 2020 is the full conservation of the south wall of the left nave and the installation of a new lighting system to illuminate the wall decorations.

This exceptional space has a lot in common with the Domus Aurea — dark, soaring underground spaces, fragile decorations, mythology, mosaics, endemic danger from water and invasive organisms — and that tour was such an awesome experience I did it two years in a row. Guided tours of the Basilica Sotterranea di Porta Maggiore run at 11AM on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Sunday of the month and are available in Italian only. Tickets can be purchased online here.

Share

Neolithic Shmoos found on Orkney

December 10th, 2019

Nine carved Neolithic figures strongly reminiscent of the Shmoo of have been unearthed in Orkney. They were discovered in an archaeological exploration at the site of an electrical substation in Finstown. Underneath two feet of midden deposits, the remains of a structure containing the figures were found.

Individual examples of these types of carved stones have been found before, usually churned up by ploughs during agricultural work, but this is the first time nine of them have been unearthed in one place. They are also unusually three-dimensional. Most of the known examples are flat with the sides chipped creating the outline of a tiny head or knob over a wider, longer body. These are rounded and carved all around the “neck.”

The archaeologists working on site uncovered the carved stones scattered around a hearth within the remains of an enigmatic structure that contained three cists, two hearths and a partial ring of holes packed with broken off upstanding stones. Three of the roughly carved figures were also important enough to the people who used the building to be incorporated within the structure of one of the hearths and in the foundations of one of the standing stones. The purpose of the building and how it was used by the inhabitants of this site four thousand years ago is still an enigma.

Dating the necked stones firmly will require further work, since they have also been found on Iron Age sites in Orkney. On initial evidence, the ones from Finstown possibly date to around the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, roughly 2000BC. Identifying the purpose of these stones, and if they are figurines, will also require further work, with a close study for abrasion, wear and any other marks on these anthropomorphic objects.

The archaeologists also discovered evidence of prehistoric farming at the site: clay subsoil marked with gouges left by ards, stone ploughshares shaped into a point. The lines intersect and hashtag each other, evidence of how intensively Neolithic farmers ploughed up the ground.

The trenches have been covered over and all the Shmoos removed and cleaned. They will be conserved and studied while the development plans for the site move forward.

Carved stone recovered before cleaning. Photo courtesy ORCA Archaeology. Carved stone after cleaning. hoto courtesy ORCA Archaeology.

Share

Eye of Horus found in Oman grave

December 9th, 2019

Archaeologists excavating an archaeological site in the Oman province of Dibba Al-Baya on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula have unearthed an Iron Age tomb containing an Egyptian Eye of Horus amulet, the first ever discovered in Oman. The grave dates to between 100 B.C., the Late Iron Age, and 300 A.D., the Pre-Islamic Period.

The Dibba archaeological site was discovered by accident in 2012. After initial surveys by local archaeologists, the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture invited an Italian archaeological mission to excavate it beginning in April 2013. The team has unearthed a funerary complex consisting of two large collective tombs (LCG1 and LCG2), a Parthian grave and a number of ritual pits filled with artifacts including gold jewelry, decorated inlaid shell medallions, bronze, soapstone and ceramic vessels, daggers, arrowheads, all of high quality and in generally excellent condition.  Chamber graves constructed out of stones, the collective tombs were in use from the Late Bronze Age (1600-1350 B.C.) through the Pre-Islamic Period.

From 2013 through 2018, archaeologists unearthed the skeletal remains of at least 188 people, more than 3,500 artifacts and 5,000 beads from LCG1 alone. LCG2, which was discovered during the second season of excavations in 2014, has been equally rich in remains and artifacts with more than 3,000 objects of high value unearthed thus far. Archaeologists have also found restored, expanded and reorganized structures indicating that LCG2 was repeatedly altered over the centuries of use.

The newly-discovered grave was unearthed in LCG2. It was oval in shape and contains the skeletal remains of 12 individuals. Buried with them was a large complement of grave goods: glazed and unglazed pottery, bronze pots, iron heads, imported silver and gold jewelry. The Eye of Horus amulet, a symbol representing projection and good health, was also imported.

Sultan bin Saif Al Bakri, Director General of Antiquities, said, “this necklace is the second to be found at this site, where we had previously found an amulet of the civilisations that originated in Iraq in the form of a stone inscribed with the cuneiform name [Gula], the deity of healing in the Mesopotamian civilisation. This was also used for protection and from for the deceased.

Jolla is said to be the greatest physician and healer of diseases in the Babylonian civilisation dating back to the second half of the second millennium BC. Many discoveries from the site have since found their way to the National Museum of Oman.

Dr. Francesco Genchi, the head of the Italian delegation from the University of Rome emphasized that the findings are indicative of the historic role Dibba played – located on the eastern coast of the Oman Peninsula, where it was linked to ancient global and regional trade routes.

He added that the archaeological evidence found so far indicates that Dibba was considered a sacred area of major importance in the understanding of Iron Age tribal societies across the Arabian Peninsula – and that this site in particular was of great importance for funerary rites.

Share

Last one in the pit is a rotten (Roman) egg!

December 8th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered a perfectly intact Roman-era chicken egg in a pit at Berryfields in Buckinghamshire. As a matter of fact, archaeologists retrieved four whole eggs from that pit, but three of them were so fragile they broke on contact and graced the company with the unmistakable aroma of 2,000-year-old rotten egg. That makes the one survivor the only complete Roman egg known in Britain, and only the second one ever found anywhere. (The other was discovered in a child’s grave in Rome, clutched in the child’s skeletonized hand.)

Originally used to malt grain for brewing beer, the ancient pit was and still is waterlogged which has allowed for the preservation of organic remains. When its use for malting came to an end in the late 3rd century, people began to use it as a sort of impromptu wishing well, throwing a variety of objects into it for good luck. In addition to the eggs, the team discovered an extremely rare basket made of woven oak bands and willow rods, leather shoes and wooden tools.

Archaeologist Edward Biddulph said the extent and range of discoveries “was more than could be foreseen”. […]

Eggs were associated with fertility, rebirth and the Roman gods Mithras and Mercury.

Eggshell fragments have been found before, usually in Roman graves, but this is the “only complete Roman egg known in Britain” and “a genuinely unique discovery”, Mr Biddulph said.

He believes the eggs and bread basket could have been food offerings cast into the pit as part of a religious ceremony during a funeral procession.

Berryfields is in the area of the medieval town of Fleet Marston. Previous archaeological finds like dense pottery remains and hundreds of coins indicate there was a Romano-British settlement preceding Fleet Marston. A major Roman road linking  Verulamium (modern-day St Albans) and Corinium Dobunnorum (modern-day Cirencester) traversed the site, intersecting with several smaller roads. That prime crossroads location suggests the Roman settlement may have been a market town and/or government administrative center.

Share

Gold stater tossed in Salvation Army kettle

December 7th, 2019

An anonymous donor dropped an ancient gold coin into a Salvation Army bucket in Florida on Friday morning. The gold stater from the 1st century B.C. was wrapped in one-dollar bill and dropped in the ubiquitous red kettle in front of a Publix grocery store in Tampa. A coin dealer estimated its market value at around $2,000.

The obverse of the coin depicts three togate men, a Roman consul flanked by two fasces-bearing lictors. They are walking facing left. The word “ΚΟΣΩΝ” inscribed under them. The reverse has the image of an eagle standing on a scepter clutching a wreath in one claw.

The Independent Coin Graders label says it’s a “Greek Thracian Kings” coin dating to 44-42 B.C. but that’s a disputed identification. The coin was not minted in Greece. This type of stater has only been found in Transylvania, often in large hoards. Koson is believed to be name of the Dacian king who minted the coin, but his name and reign are otherwise unrecorded. Some scholars think he might be the same person as a king Cotiso or Cotison mentioned by historians Appian and Suetonius as having rejected Octavian’s offer of a marriage alliance and sided with Antony in the civil war and by the poet Horace as having been defeated in battle by Octavian.

Those events took place at 35 B.C., however, and the design of the coin suggests a connection to the previous generation of Roman civil warriors. The consul flanked by lictors is very similar to the reverse of a coin minted by Marcus Junius Brutus in his role as moneyer a decade before he assassinated his way into history. It depicts his ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, revered for having overthrown the last Tarquin king of Rome and considered the founder of the Roman Republic, as the first ever consul of Rome in 509 B.C. It’s possible Koson modeled his stater after the 54 B.C. Brutus denarius as a tribute because he was a supporter of the latest Brutus to claim the status of liberator and tyrannicide. The 44-42 B.C. date would put it right in the middle of the wars after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

The Dacian kingdom had fallen apart in 44 B.C. and the territory was splintered into numerous conflicting tribal factions. If there was a Thracian king involved, he must have minted these coins specifically to pay Dacian tribesmen, perhaps for raids across the Danube.

The coin has been graded (MS-63), meaning it’s in mint, uncirculated condition with only minor deficiencies in the strike, not due to wear and tear. In this example you can see the obverse image is off-center, enough so that the beaded border is missing from the left side, as is the K in Koson. The Salvation Army is working with a dealer to arrange for the conversion of this coin into spendable cash for its charitable endeavors.

Share

Paleolithic Venus found in Amiens

December 6th, 2019

Archaeologists have unearthed an exceptional “Venus” figurine from the early Upper Paleolithic at the prehistoric site of Renancourt in Amiens, northern France.

Sculpted in chalk and 4 centimeters tall, this “Venus” is steatopygic: the volume of the rear, thighs and breasts is hypertrophied. The arms are barely present, and the face is represented without lines. This sculpture adheres perfectly to the aesthetic canon of the Gravettian stylistic tradition, which includes the Venuses of Lespugue (Haute-Garonne) and Willendorf (Austria), as well the bas-relief Venus of Laussel (Dordogne). This “Venus” of Renancourt also has a surprising “hairdo” represented by a grid pattern of thin incisions similar to those of the Venus of Willendorf and, especially, of the Venus of Brassempouy (Landes), also known as the “Lady with a Hood.”

She was found in a layer with organic remains that have been radiocarbon dated to 23,000 years ago, a period when the Gravettian hunter-gatherer culture thrived over a large portion of Europe. Gravettians produced large numbers of Venus figurines and 100 or so made of clay, ivory or stone have been discovered at Gravettian hunting camps from Portugal to Siberia. About 15 of them have been found in France, mostly in southwest, the most recent of them in 1959. Now the Renancourt site has single-handedly doubled those stats as archaeologists have found another 15 of the fertility deities in a mere five years of excavations.

This proliferation of figurines is accompanied by thousands of fragments of chalk that could be waste chips. Archaeologists think the site may have been used by the Gravettians as a figurine manufacturing workshop.

Share

Pocklington chariot burial shield is Celtic masterpiece

December 5th, 2019

The unique chariot burial unearthed at Pocklington, East Yorkshire, in 2018 has proven even more extraordinary than it first seemed, and that’s saying a lot. This was the second chariot burial discovered at the site of a new housing development. That’s two of only 27 ever discovered in the UK, both found in a single Iron Age burial ground within a year of each other. Then, in contrast with the previously-discovered chariot burial, this one featured a chariot yolked to two ponies and buried upright, only decapitated after the grave had been filled high enough to keep them in place so they would be forever captured as in motion. No other upright chariot burials like have been found in the UK. Inside the chariot, face-down, was a bronze shield. The deceased was placed on top of it.

When the find was first announced, the upright burial got the lion’s share of the attention. Now that the shield has been cleaned and conserved, it is stepping into limelight as a masterpiece of Celtic art.

Specialist conservation has revealed a swirling La Tène style architecture, typical of early Celtic art, said Paula Ware, from MAP Archaeological Practice who carried out an excavation on behalf of Persimmon Homes.

She said the repousse design, made by hammering the bronze sheet from the underside, featured evidence of organic forms, such as spiralling mollusc shells creating a three-legged triskele motif, and the highly decorative asymmetrical design drew the eye to a central raised boss. […]

“The shield features a scalloped border. This previously unknown design feature is not comparable to any other Iron Age finds across Europe, adding to its valuable uniqueness.

“The popular belief is that elaborate metal-faced shields were purely ceremonial, reflecting status, but not used in battle. Our investigation challenges this with the evidence of a puncture wound in the shield typical of a sword. Signs of repairs can also be seen, suggesting the shield was not only old but likely to have been well-used,” said Paula.

Its spiral motifs in the early Celtic La Tène style are similar to those found on the Wandsworth shield boss, recovered during dredging operations on the Thames some time before 1849 and donated to the British Museum in 1858.

Persimmon Homes Yorkshire, the housing developers who own the property and the archaeological finds (non of them qualify as official treasure despite their age and immense significance because they are not made of precious metal) plan to donate them to a local museum yet to be determined.

Share

Clay “envelopes” found with cuneiform tablets in Iraq

December 4th, 2019

Archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of cuneiform tablets and rare pieces of the clay “envelopes” once used to encapsulate such tablets at the ancient site of Marad in central-south Iraq. They found about a hundred cuneiform tablets, eight of them fully intact, dating to the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C. and almost 100 more cretulae, ie, the clay blocks with seal impressions or strings used to wrap and secure the cuneiform correspondence and records.

The ancient city of Marad, known Tell as-Sadoum today, was on a branch of Euphrates and was occupied for 2,000 years. Archaeological remains indicate it was founded in the Early Dynastic period (ca. 2900–2350 B.C.), when urban centers like Ur 250 miles to the south emerged as influential regional powers, and lasted into the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 B.C.). The excavation focused on a temple precinct at the top of the city’s main hill, a residential area and a commercial one. The tablets and envelopes were found in the manufacturing district. (We learned to write to do business. The first recorded personal name in history belonged to an accountant.)

“In general, the tablets bear witness to the wealth and the lively economic and administrative life of the ancient city in Mesopotamia and often tell of business transactions as well as administrative and judicial issues,” explains Anacleto D’Agostino, contract professor of Archaeology of the Near East at the University of Pisa, who coordinated the project. “The tablets we found, from the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian Periods, which are currently under examination, contain purchase agreements, letters and date formulas and also mention the names of sovereigns as well as references to a few cities.”

“The tablets could also be enclosed in ‘envelopes’, of which we found dozens of fragments,” continues D’Agostino. “The ‘envelopes’ are containers modeled out of thin layers of clay with the subject of the message printed on the surface along with names or images, used to authenticate and guarantee the contents.”

The cretulae are older than the tablets, dating to the 3rd millennium B.C. They are highly decorated, engraved with scenes of the hunt, heroes in combat and animals. They are fragmentary now, but when originally made they were frequently embossed with gemstones as indicators of the prestige, wealth and rank of the person making or authorizing the record.

The team, led by archaeologists from the University of Pisa in collaboration with the University of Siena and the Iraqi University of Al-Qādisiyyah, plan to return to Marad next year to continue the excavation.

Share

They’re good dogs/wolves/, Brent

December 3rd, 2019

A canid puppy that died 18,000 years ago in northeastern Siberia, has been discovered in such good condition it looks like it’s asleep. It was found in the summer of 2018 near the village of Belaya Gora, its body intact with fur, whiskers, eyelashes and velvety muzzle preserved for all this time in the permafrost. It arrowhead-shaped baby teeth indicate it was less than two months old when it died. Its fluffy little paws, baby nails and nose could easily garner a 14/10 on We Rate Dogs. It’sw ay cuter than the 14,000-year-old canid puppy found in Tumat, Siberia, in 2015.

As with its younger neighbor, the puppy’s species has yet to be revealed. Scientists with the Swedish Centre for Palaeogenetics (CPG) Scientists were able to extract 43% endogenous DNA, an impressive figure for prehistoric remains. Initial analyses have found he was male, but have not been able to determine if he was a dog or a wolf.

“It’s normally relatively easy to tell the difference between the two,” David Stanton, a researcher at the Centre for Palaeogenetics, told CNN.

“We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you’d expect to tell if it was one or the other. The fact that we can’t might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both — to dogs and wolves,” he explained.

Stanton told CNN that the period the puppy is from is “a very interesting time in terms of wolf and dog evolution.”

“We don’t know exactly when dogs were domesticated, but it may have been from about that time. We are interested in whether it is in fact a dog or a wolf, or perhaps it’s something halfway between the two,” he said.

Further genome sequencing may well answer the question. If he does turn out to be a dog, he would be the oldest ever discovered. Russian scientists have given him the name Dogor, the Yakutian word for friend, as in man’s best.

Share

Archaic Greek necropolis found in Sicily

December 2nd, 2019

An archaic necropolis dating to the 7th century B.C. has been discovered in Gela, Sicily. It was discovered during fiber optic cable installation on the Via Di Bartolo in the historic center of the ancient town a few blocks from the sea. The excavation has unearthed two burials. One is an infant burial, the remains of a neonate placed inside a Corinthian hydria (water jug) decorated with a continuous wave motif around the rim. Even older is an intact Proto-Corinthian olpe, a footed wine jug with a long body and round mouth. It has been dated to between 700 and 650 B.C., the first decades of the founding of the Greek colony. The remains of a large animal, butchered and cooked in a funerary rite, were found near it.

The trench is small, but in addition to the two notable ceramic artifacts, it is replete with remains of Proto-Corinthian, Corinthian and Attic pottery. About 20 ceramic pieces have been identified as Fikellura ware, produced in Rhodes between 560 and 495 B.C. This suggests the necropolis was extensively used over a significant period of time.

Gela was founded by Greek colonists from Rhodes and Crete in 688 B.C. on the southwestern coast of Sicily. It was destroyed by Carthaginian general Himilko in 405 B.C. and he was thorough about it, demolishing the Doric acropolis, the Temple of Athena and two other temples on the hill overlooking the gulf and setting the city on fire.

After Himilko’s defeat of the Greek colonies of Sicily, Gela’s population was allowed to return, but the city became a vassal of Carthage, forbidden to rebuild its walls and forced to pay tribute. It would be liberated only in 339 B.C. when Timoleon of Corinth surprised even his own soldiers by routing the vastly superior numbers of the Carthaginian army (Plutarch put it at 70,000 to 6,000). Parts of the wall from the 4th century B.C. reconstruction still stand in Gela today, the only surviving example of a Greek defensive wall with a section of raised raw brick. Gela was destroyed again in the late 3rd century B.C. by either the tyrant of Agrigento or the one of Syracuse, and this time it wouldn’t recover until the modern city was founded west of the ancient one in the 13th century.

Because so little archaeological material exists from before Himilko’s sacking of the town, there has been some debate among historians about where exactly the earliest settlements were located. Some have hypothesized that they dotted the surrounding area, that the center of the Classical-era (5th c. B.C.) city on the west side of the hill overlooking the gulf was a later development. The discovery of a necropolis dating to the first decades of the founding of city under the shadow of the hill indicates that the Classical Gela grew up and around the nucleus of the archaic settlement.

A later Greek necropolis was found in the neighborhood at the beginning of the 20th century. The chamber tombs were separated by large blocks of tufa. A large block of tufa was also found in the recently unearthed burial ground. It’s possible it was used a boundary stone between the older necropolis and the newer one.

The company installing the cable — Open Fiber — has expressed willingness to enlarge the excavated area to explore the founders’ necropolis more fully.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

December 2019
S M T W T F S
« Nov    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication