Met’s iconic unicorn tapestry explored

August 5th, 2020

One the greatest and probably the most famous treasure on display at The Met Cloisters is a series of seven tapestries that depict the mystical hunt of the unicorn.  Their early history is unknown and there are enough differences in style, size and composition suggest they made not have been woven as a single set. They were designed in France and woven in the southern Netherlands of wool, silk, silver and gold threads around 1500. The dense florals, rich colors, detailed figures of people and animals have made the Unicorn Tapestries iconic examples of late medieval art.

On each corner of the tapestries and in the center tied to the fountain and foliage with betassled rope are a cipher — A and a backwards E — which are likely a reference to the original owners. The series doesn’t appear on the historical record until 1680 when it was in the Paris mansion of François VI de La Rochefoucauld, the aristocratic writer of maxims. Historians believe the cipher points to the tapestries having been made for Anne of Brittany on the occasion of her wedding to King Louis XII in 1499, her second turn as queen consort of France. The series was acquired from the Counts de La Rochefoucauld by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1923. He loaned it to the Met for exhibitions before donating it to the museum in 1937.

The Met is still closed and will remain so at least until the end of the month. As part of its Insider Insights webseries, the museum has released an in-depth exploration of the Unicorn Tapestries focusing on one piece in particular: The Unicorn Purifies Water, described as “the most lyrical” of the set.

In this tapestry, 12 hunters and their dogs surround a unicorn on his knees, dipping his horn into a stream of water at the base of a fountain. The foreground and brush are inhabited by a diverse bestiary — a pair of goldfinches and pheasants on the fountain, a pair of lions in the bottom left foreground, a spotted hyena in front of them. The would-be hunters do not approach their quarry here. According to lore, a unicorn cannot be disturbed while performing a magical act. In this case, purifying a poisoned stream, its contamination indicated by the presence of plants used to counter poison in the medieval pharmacopia, and because “unicorn horn” (ie, rhinoceros or narwhal horn) was considered a universal antidote.

The Cloisters research assistant Amelia Roche’ Hyde ties the visual iconography of the tapestry to its historical context and explains the dense layers of symbolism woven in with the gold and silver threads.

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Tiny avian dinosaur is actually medium lizard

August 5th, 2020

The paper that identified the skull of an animal preserved in amber as a new species of avian dinosaur has been retracted. Trapped in amber 99 million years ago, the skull definitely looks like a bird’s with dozens of small teeth, but newly released data points to it being a 99-million-year old lizard instead of the smallest dinosaur.

The new data “do definitively say that we were wrong”, says Jingmai O’Connor, a palaeontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, who co-led the now-retracted study. But, she contends, the specimen cannot be reclassified until the other fossil data are published.

Andrea Cau, a vertebrate palaeontologist in Parma, Italy, was among the scientists who were sceptical of the original classification. The fossil has several characteristics typical of lizards that have never before been seen in a bird-like fossil from that era, Cau says. And because so many of the specimen’s features are lizard-like — about ten, by his estimate — “the idea that it was  instead a lizard could not be excluded”. Cau is not surprised by the retraction, and notes that reclassifications, especially of incomplete fossil specimens from unknown groups, are not uncommon in the field.

Although the fossil is no longer thought to be the smallest-known dinosaur, O’Connor and Cau both say that it is still compelling because of its unusual combination of features. “The specimen is still very interesting to science,” O’Connor says.

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200 arrows from 14th c. battle found in Polish forest

August 3rd, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown medieval battlefield on a forested mountain near Sanok, southeastern Poland. The team unearthed more than 200 arrowheads and crossbow bolts from the mid-1300s, the reign of Casimir the Great of Poland.

The site is on Biała Góra, a peak of the Słonne Mountains. It came to archaeologists’ attention from reports of widespread looting taking place there. It was known to have had a fortified settlement in the late Middle Ages, but it was believed to have been built by the redoubtable Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland and wife of Sigismund I the Old, in the 16th century. The last time the site was archaeologically investigated was 50 years ago and none of the documentation from that survey is extant today. Treasure hunters flocking to the site with metal detectors suggested there was something to be found there and spurred new archaeological fieldwork.

The evidence of extensive looting dotted the hillside — numerous pits on the surface and iron objects of little interest to treasure hunters left behind. The great quantity of arrowheads and bolts were an unexpected discovery because they date to the mid-14th century and there is no specific record of a battle taking place there at that time. There sure was a lot of fighting going on in the area, however.

After Bolesław-Jerzy II, Piast dynasty ruler of the Ruthenian principality of Galicia, was poisoned to death by local nobles in 1340, Casimir III the Great of Poland inherited the kingdom. This was not an undisputed succession, to put it mildly, and Ruthenian noblemen, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland went to war to pursue their claims to the principality. Ultimately Casimir came out on top, and in 1344 he annexed Galicia, adding 20,000 square miles and 200,000 people to the Kingdom of Poland.

Chroniclers record that Casimir’s army took a number of castles when they invaded in 1340. The hillfort on Biała Góra may have been one of them. If so, its defensive response was weak as very few artillery projectiles were found with the arrowheads and bolts. The fortress was small, encircled by a single earthenware embankment and a dry moat. The highest concentration of bolts and arrows were found within the stronghold and right next to it. The attack came from the south and the remains of the embankment bear evidence of having been burned, so it seems the fort took heavy fire and was unable to dish any out.

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Exact spot of Van Gogh’s last painting found

August 2nd, 2020

The exact location of Vincent van Gogh’s last painting has been identified thanks to a vintage postcard. On July 27th, 1890, hours before he took the shot to the chest that would kill him two days later, van Gogh painted Tree Roots. He never finished it. His brother Theo’s brother-in-law described it in a letter: “The morning before his death, [Vincent] had painted a sous-bois [forest scene], full of sun and life.”

The spot was identified by Wouter van der Veen, the scientific director of the Institut van Gogh, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of van Gogh’s room at the  Auberge Ravoux and the landscapes around Auvers-sur-Oise that inspired his last works. The clue that solved the puzzle was a postcard. Titled “Auvers-sur-Oise — Rue Daubigny,” the card features a man walking his bike past a hillside with trees and exposed roots. It was printed from 1900 to 1910, so the photograph was taken at most 10 years after van Gogh’s death.

Van der Veen contacted experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam who together with a historical vegetation specialist (extremely cool job) did a comparative study of Tree Roots, the postcard and the hillside as it looks today. They agreed with Van der Veen’s conclusions that this was indeed the site of van Gogh’s last painting.

Wouter van der Veen[…]:

‘Every element of this mysterious painting can be explained by observation of the post card and the location: the shape of the hillside, the roots, their relation to each other, the composition of the earth and the presence of a steep limestone face. The site is also consistent with Van Gogh’s habit of painting motifs from his immediate surroundings. The sunlight painted by Van Gogh indicates that the last brush strokes were painted towards the end of the afternoon, which provides more information about the course of this dramatic day ending in his suicide.’

Teio Meedendorp (senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum):

‘In our opinion, the location identified by Van der Veen is highly likely to be the correct one and it is a remarkable discovery. On closer observation, the overgrowth on the post card shows very clear similarities to the shape of the roots on Van Gogh’s painting. That this is his last artwork renders it all the more exceptional, and even dramatic. This area had already been documented by Van Gogh in other paintings. He must often have passed by the location when going to the fields stretching out behind the castle of Auvers, where he painted several times during the last week of his life and where he would take his own life.’

Wouter van der Veen was finally able to scout the site in person some months after his discovery when lockdown ended in France in May. The spot is 500 feet or so from the Auberge Ravoux, easy walking distance for the artist carrying his equipment. The largest tree is still recognizable from the painting.

A wooden barrier has been erected to protect the site. On July 28th, 130 years to the day (minus one) since Vincent’s death, a plaque was installed in Auvers-sur-Oise to commemorate the location where he painted his last masterpiece. Willem van Gogh, Vincent’s great-grandnephew, was in attendance.

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California man indicted for Roman mosaic looted from Syria

August 1st, 2020

Four years after a massive mosaic looted from warn-torn Syria was first confiscated, its trafficker has been indicted in federal court. It’s not much of a charge for so bold a crime; just one count of entry of goods falsely classified, which he has admitted doing already.

The mosaic is 18 feet long, eight feet high and weighs one ton.  It depicts Hercules, the skin of the Nemean lion draped over his left arm, his club on the ground next to him, on his 11th Labour, stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides. In this scene he is shooting an arrow at the eagle coming to feast upon Prometheus’ endlessly regenerating liver. It is believed to date to the 3rd or 4th century A.D. and the style is consistent with mosaics found in Idlib, a city in northwest Syria near the border with Turkey.

The FBI seized the mosaic in 2016 in the home of Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi in Palmdale, California, as part of an investigation into looted antiquities. He had imported it through Long Beach in 2015 along with two other mosaics and 81 vases. The paperwork declared the mosaics to be “ceramic tiles” and the entire shipment, mosaics and modern vases, to have been been acquired in Define-Hatay, Turkey, and to be worth a total of $2,199. The raid on his house turned up another ginned up document which even more ridiculously claimed he had bought the mosaic rolled up like a carpet in a 2009 yard sale from a family who had owned it since the 1970s.

Alcharihi admitted to authorities that he had paid $12,000 for the objects and lied on the form to dodge duties. He also admitted that he knew the mosaic was ancient, not a vague assortment of “ceramic tiles.” The feds found emails from him to a potential buyer in which he said the mosaic had been lifted from a historical building in Idlib and which included photographs of the mosaic in situ in 2010.

In 2018, the US Attorney’s Office of Los Angeles filed an asset forfeiture complaint against the mosaic, alleging Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi had illegally imported it into the country using fraudulent documents. Only now have the slow wheels of justice ground out an indictment, meagre though it may be.

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Dog-handled authepsa found in Die

July 31st, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered a rare copper authepsa, a vessel used to heat water, in an excavation around the cathedral of Die in the Drôme department of southeastern France. A team from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) was excavating a location on Place de la République where a tree was going to be planted when they unearthed the remains of an ancient building. It was built in the second half of the 1st century and destroyed in a fire at the end of the 2nd century.

It is 47 cm (18.5 inches) high and consists of two compartments: a reservoir for liquid and a heating chamber. The tank has a capacity of about a gallon and was made of a single very thin (2 mm) piece of copper alloy. The heating chamber runs diagonally from the base of the vessel through the center and is welded to a two-inch hole in the side of the belly through which hot coals were fed to heat the liquid in the reservoir. The opening in the base of the heating chamber is plugged with a copper hemisphere held in place by two transverse iron rods that perforate the base. This blocked the coals from falling out of the chamber while still providing an exit route for the ashes. The vessel was mounted on an annular base with two small square vents.

The neck is fashioned into a pouring spout. A cast pouring handle is soldered to the body with a lead-tin mixture. The handle is highly decorative, shaped as dog with his muzzle resting on his front paws. The shape of the vessel and the base is of a type used to heat water for use in personal ablutions. They were easy to carry and could be used out of doors, so it’s also possible it was used to serve a mixture of water and wine.

Authepsae of this type are extremely rare. Only six are known to be extant, and this is the second ever found in Gaul. The pot itself can’t be absolutely dated, but the other one discovered in Gaul roughly dates to between the 1st and 3rd century A.D. The unusual dog-shaped handle might held narrow down the date range once it’s cleaned and restored. Some charcoal found in the heating chamber was radiocarbon dated to 130-260 A.D.

There is archaeological evidence of settlements in the Die area dating back to the Neolithic, but urbanization only kicked off in the 1st century A.D. under Roman rule. By the early 2nd century, Die was a thriving capital of the Gallic Vocontii people and would take on even greater prominence around the turn of the 3rd century as a religious center for the cult of mother goddess Cybele. The authepsa was a luxury item and must have belonged to one of the city’s elite. The room in which it was found had important painted wall decoration, confirming that it was the home of a wealthy person.

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Core reveals source of Stonehenge sarsen stones

July 30th, 2020

The core drilled out of one of Stonehenge’s sarsen stones in 1958 has answered one of the ancient site’s greatest mysteries: the source of its sarsen megaliths is West Woods in Wiltshire, 15 miles north of Salisbury Plain.

The smaller bluestones have been identified as coming from the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales and the Altar Stone (the central megalith in the circle) from the Senni Beds of east Wales 200 miles from the Salisbury Plain, but the origin of the massive sarsens has been debated by historians for four centuries. The prevailing theory since the 16th century is that they were transported from Marlborough Downs about 20 miles north of Stonehenge, mainly because that’s where you find the most and largest sarsens in Britain today.

Weighing an average of 20 metric tons and up to 23 feet high, the sarsens are so huge that moving them and installing them in the circle was an enormous undertaking in the 3rd millennium B.C. (or any time, for that matter). There were originally about 80 sarsen megaliths. Only 52 remain today, 15 of them in the iconic Trilithon Horseshoe. One of the trilithons in the horseshoe, uprights 57 and 58 and lintel 158, had collapsed in 1797. In 1958, the Ministry of Works re-erected the trilithon. The uprights had longitudinal fractures, so to reinforce the cracked stones so they could bear the weight of the lintel, three holes an inch in diameter were drilled all the way through the meter-thick width of the stones 57 and 58 and metal ties inserted into the holes.

The whereabouts of two of those cores are unknown. They were considered waste material at the time, and the one only survived because Roger Phillips, then employed with diamond cutting firm Van Moppes, kept it as a souvenir after he bored it out of Stone 58. After prizing it and carrying it with him across the world for decades, Phillips donated it to English Heritage in 2018.

What was trash in 1958 is archaeological treasure today, and researchers immediately jumped on the opportunity to study the core, the sarsens in situ and sarsen boulders in the wild, so to speak. University of Brighton researchers scanned each of the 52 extant sarsens using non-invasive portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry (PXRF) to determine their chemical composition. Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and ICP–atomic emission spectrometry (ICP-AES) were then used to analyze the core from Stone 58 and a sampling of sarsen stones from 20 areas in southern Britain. By comparing the chemical signatures, researchers were able to determine the likely source of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge.

The meter-long core had to be cut in half lengthways, alas. English Heritage kept one of the half-cylinders. The others was cut into three samples for testing. The trace element signature comparison of Stone 58 with the sarsen boulder samples eliminated all but West Woods in southeast Marlborough Downs.

Overlooking the Kennet Valley to the north, West Woods covers a ~6-km2 area and comprises a plateau rising to 220 m above sea level that is dissected by two narrow valleys. The area once contained a dense concentration of sarsens, including a sarsen train mapped by the Ordnance Survey as recently as 1924. Most of the stones were broken up and removed from the mid-19th century onward. However, many large boulders remain, both in valleys and on high ground, and sarsen extraction pits are common, particularly in the northern woodland. West Woods lies within a concentration of Early Neolithic activity, being close to Avebury, numerous long barrows, and the causewayed enclosure at Knap Hill. Evidence of Mesolithic through Iron Age occupation has been recorded in the area, including a 40-m-long Early Neolithic chambered long barrow, sarsen standing stones, a sarsen polissoir used to sharpen stone axes, and prehistoric fields where now-wooded ground was previously open, cultivated land.

Why, in a region with the greatest density of extant sarsen stones in Britain, West Woods was selected as the primary source for the Stonehenge sarsens is unclear. Its significance most likely derives from the size and quality of the stones present there, making the area an important location for Neolithic people. Its topographic position on high ground south of the Kennet and its relative proximity to Salisbury Plain would also have made it an efficient place from which to obtain the sarsens. West Woods is located ~3 km south of the area where the majority of antiquaries and archaeologists have looked for Stonehenge’s sarsen quarries and, thus, lies slightly closer to the monument at ~25 km in a direct line.

The results of the study have been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read here.

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8,000-year-old graves found in Sofia

July 29th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered four Early Neolithic graves in the Slatina district of Sofia, Bulgaria. Two graves from the same period were found at the site last year. These are the earliest burials ever unearthed in Sofia.

The graves were discovered during an rescue excavation in advance of a new housing development, but excavations have taken place in the area off and on for three decades. Archaeologist have recovered artifacts — ceramic vessels, loom weights, a spindle — and remains that are evidence of a settlement that was continuously occupied for 500 years, from the late 7th to the mid-6th millennium B.C. The newly discovered graves date to the beginning of the 6th millennium.

During the excavations, archaeologists from the National Archaeological Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences came across a double grave – most likely a man with a child.

The other remains are of a woman lying on her stomach and of a man who was laid out in a very special way – one of his hands remained under the skeleton

The skeletal remains will be studied further in a Bulgarian Academy of Sciences laboratory. They will be DNA tested in the hope of establishing if there was a familiar connecting between the individuals.

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Anglo-Saxon eyesalve cuts swath through bacterial biofilms

July 28th, 2020

One of my all-time favorite stories has an update. In 2015, microbiologists at the University of Nottingham collaborated with an Anglo-Saxon expert from the university’s English department to recreate a 10th century recipe for a salve purported to treat eye infections. The combination of onion, garlic, wine and bovine bile steeped together in a bronze or brass vessel was then tested on flourishing cultures of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and found to be a MRSA-killing machine. The individual ingredients did nothing; the control batch minus the vegetable ingredients did nothing. The full salve obliterated 999 Staphylococcus cells in 1,000, both for in vitro cultures and in vivo on infected mice. Even a diluted version of the salve was a powerful weapon. It couldn’t kill MRSA, but it blocked the bacterial cell-cell communication it needs to damage tissue.

The results were exciting but the research was in its infancy five years ago. Now the team has published a new paper on the use of Bald’s eyesalve on a range of pathogens in biofilms, communities of bacteria that form a protective shield that is to all intents and purposes impossible to destroy no matter how many antimicrobials you launch at it. Most pharmacological studies of plant ingredients focus on isolating active compounds and using them against planktonic (free-living) bacteria cells which are easier to kill than biofilms. This study explored the antimicrobial properties of the mixture.

Biofilm infections of wounds (e.g. burns, diabetic foot ulcers), medical implants (e.g. artificial joints, catheters), the lungs (e.g. in cystic fibrosis) and other body sites impose a major health and economic burden and can be effectively untreatable. Non-healing, infected foot ulcers, which can be a complication of diabetes, provide an especially sobering example. Even if the infection is apparently successfully treated, there is a high chance of recurrence and an estimated 50% of those affected die within 5 years of ulcer development. Management of diabetic foot ulcers costs the UK’s NHS £650 M per year. […]

Each of Bald’s eyesalve ingredients has known antimicrobial properties or compounds (onion and garlic, bile, wine). We explored the contribution of all four ingredients to both planktonic and biofilm activity of Bald’s eyesalve to build a picture of their relative contributions. Planktonic activity appeared almost entirely attributable to garlic. However, tests against S. aureus Newman biofilms, grown in a synthetic wound model, showed garlic exhibited no antibacterial activity in this more clinically-relevant setting. In fact, no preparation which omitted any one ingredient possessed full activity in the biofilm assay. This confirms our previously published finding that Bald’s eyesalve anti-biofilm activity is contingent on the presence of all four ingredients.

The Voltron force of Bald’s eyesalve was able to completely eradicate planktonic cultures of a number of bacteria including  P. aeruginosa, A. baumannii, E. cloacae, S. maltophilia, S. aureus, S. epidermidis, S. pyogenes and MRSA. It was also able to slaughter cells in biofilms S. aureus Newman, A. baumannii and S. pyogenes. Interestingly, while the salve was effective against planktonic cultures of P. aeruginosa, E. cloacae and S. maltophilia, it was ineffective against their biofilms. This discovery underscores how important it is to include biofilms in any studies of antibacterial compounds because being able to kill planktonic cultures bears no relation to being able to break down biofilm.

Because people asked in the comments five years ago (and are still asking today), here’s the recipe for Bald’s eyesalve used by the research team.

Garlic and onions were purchased from supermarkets or greengrocers. As lab work continued throughout all seasons of the year, and was conducted in two locations (Warwick and Nottingham), it is possible that different varieties of garlic and onion, or the same variety grown in different locations, were used in different batches of the eyesalve. The outer skin of the garlic and onion (sourced from local greengrocers) was removed. The garlic and onion were finely chopped, and equal volumes of garlic and onion were crushed together using a mortar and pestle for 2 min. Various sized batches of Bald’s eyesalve were used throughout this paper, ranging from final volumes of 30 ml–400 ml, the average weight used was 14.1 ± 1.5 g of onion and 15.0 ± 1.3 g of garlic per 100 ml of Bald’s eyesalve.

The crushed onion and garlic were then combined with equal volumes of wine (Pennard’s organic dry white, 11% ABV, sourced from Avalon Vineyard, Shepton Mallet) and bovine bile salts (Sigma Aldrich) made up to 89 mg·ml−1 in water and sterilised by exposing to UV radiation for 10 min (Carlton Germicidal Cabinet fitted with a 2537 Å, 8-W UV tube). The mixture was stored in sterilised glass bottles in the dark at 4 °C for 9 days, after which it was strained and centrifuged for 5 min at 1,811 g. The supernatant was then filtered using Whatman 1,001–110 Grade 1 Qualitative Filter Paper, Diameter: 11 cm, Pore Size: 11 μm. Filtered Bald’s eyesalve was stored in sterilised glass vials in the dark at 4 °C.

A little more specific than Oswald Cockayne’s original instructions in the incomparable Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England and not exactly easily reproduced in the home. Still, at least the proportions are there for any adventurous souls.

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Gold diadem found in Roman sarcophagus in Izmir

July 27th, 2020

A Roman sarcophagus containing a gold diadem was discovered during construction in Izmir, Turkey. Workers came across the stone coffin when digging a foundation in the historical district of Konak and reported the find to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. A rescue excavation unearthed the sarcophagus with lid containing human remains, fragments of ceramic and fragments of a gold diadem. The crown was removed for study and conservation while the sarcophagus was fully excavated in situ.

It has not been radiocarbon dated yet, but archaeologists believe the sarcophagus and remains are from the 2nd century A.D., a period when ancient Smyrna was at its peak prosperity under the Roman Empire. The diadem is extremely rare and indicates the deceased was a member of the ruling class.

The settlement on the Gulf of Izmir dates back to the Neolithic, making it one of the most ancient settlements of the Mediterranean. The Greek city of Smyrna was founded there around 1,000 B.C. and at least by the second half of the 7th century B.C., there was a planned city built on a grid. It prospered through agriculture and trade, rising to become one of the most important cities in the Mediterranean basin.

Old Smyrna was destroyed by Persian forces under Cyrus the Great in 545 B.C., and would not be refounded until Alexander the Great defeated the Persians under Darius III in 333 B.C. It was absorbed into the Roman Asia Province two hundred years later and by the 1st century A.D. had reclaimed its place as a major urban center. Hadrian visited Smyrna in the 124 A.D. and Marcus Aurelius rebuilt it after an earthquake in 178 A.D. Most of the Roman-era structures that survive in the city date to the Aurelian reconstruction.

The İzmir No: 1 Cultural Heritage Preservation Board decided to announce the area as a third degree archaeological site due to the fact that the “pieces may belong to more than one sarcophagus burial in the area” and “the area provides important data about the range and the necropolis of the ancient Smyrna settlement.”

According to the decision, before the construction permit is granted in the excavated area and the surrounding area, drilling excavations will be carried out and a review will be made by the experts of the İzmir Museum Directorate.

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