Happy Birthday, Rome, from the Antonine Wall.

April 21st, 2018

It’s April 21st, the traditional founding day of the city of Rome when, according to legend (one of them, anyway) Romulus ploughed a furrow laying out the boundaries of the city, sacrificed to the gods and became the first king of Rome by popular acclaim. Ancient sources vary on the date of this mythical event (in fact, archaeological evidence indicates Rome has been inhabited since Paleolithic times, ca. 14,000 years ago) but for the past couple of thousand years the most widely accepted date for the founding is 753 B.C., which makes the Eternal City 2,772 years old today.

It was a comparative baby of 895 years old when its legions built the Antonine Wall across the width of Scotland, a series of defensive ramparts, ditches and forts marking the furthest northwestern boundary of the empire. The soldiers left distance stones, slabs with reliefs and inscriptions documenting how much of the wall they’d built, features unique to the Antonine Wall.

A new study by University of Glasgow archaeologist Dr. Louisa Campbell has found that those distance slabs, now worn down to their natural sandstone, were originally painted in bright red and yellow. She used X-ray and laser technology to analyze the Second Legion’s distance stone, found at Summerston Farm in the 17th century.

Inscribed with a dedication to Antoninus Pius (“For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country, the Second Augustan Legion completed [this work] over a distance of 3666.5 paces”), the stone depicts Roman cavalry with two captives on the left of the inscription, and an eagle on top of a capricorn (emblem of the Second Legion) on the right. It is currently on display at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum.

Dr. Campbell used portable X-Ray Flourescence and Raman Spectroscopic technology to analyze the traces of pigment remaining on several distance stones, including the Summerston stone. They identified a limited palette of vibrant red and yellow that was used as visually impactful propaganda that would have conveyed a clear message to indigenous peoples about the power and strength of the Roman empire.

There is a clear format to the application of pigments in the Roman Empire with specific colours expected to appear in certain contexts, eg reds in letters and Roman cloaks and military standards, different colours of red depicting spilled blood of indigenous captive warriors and ochres probably applied in layers to provide life-like skin tones, as evidenced on marble statuary.

There is even evidence for red on the beak of the Roman eagle which Dr Campbell suggests symbolises the eagle feasting on the flesh of her enemies.

A base layer of gesso was applied to the stones in the first instance which was then painted onto, but conservation practices appear to have negatively impacted the survival of these exquisite sculptures.

This is innovative work that has not previously been attempted. It presented some challenges which have now been mitigated and the next phase of the research seeks to determine whether other stone statuary, including Pictish symbol stones and other early medieval sculpture was adorned in colour.

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Roman Republic coin collection digitzed

April 20th, 2018

Rutgers University has digitized its Ernst Badian Collection of Roman coins from the Republican era, a group of more than 1,200 coins that cover the period from 280 B.C. through 31 B.C. and the end of the Republic. Numismatics provide a unique perspective on history, not just monetary but political and social. The Badian Collection’s focus on Republican Rome makes it an invaluable (pun intended) resource for students of a period that in the earliest years of coin production has limited surviving contemporary historical documentation.

The collection begins with examples of cast bronze coinage, used in the earliest stages of monetization. The Republic moved to struck coins, some made of silver as the standard metal for coins. The denarius, half-denarius and quinarius all were struck from silver. Smaller denominations continued to be struck from bronze. Early coins found in the collection often imitate examples from the Greek colonies in southern Italy (Magna Graecia). The movement to silver denominations, like the denarius, unique to Rome, also is documented. There also are examples of brockage, an error caused when a coin adhered to the die and was struck a second time.

Coins in the collection also document the political aspects of striking coins unique to Rome. Young politicians served as official moneyers (tresviri monetales). They put their names on coins and selected motifs that conveyed messages about their families’ histories and the virtues they claimed these had. The most common message was the importance of military virtues. Patriotic images like the helmeted head of Rome and the she wolf appear together with images of deities. Reflecting affairs in Italy and beyond, changes in money weights and the addition of victory motifs show the fortunes of a rising empire. This includes evidence of the difficulties of the Republic during the Second Punic War, when Hannibal campaigned in Italy. An unusual use of gold as an “emergency” coinage during the Second Punic War is represented among the coins at Rutgers. The collection also documents financial pressures that caused debasement of currency in the same period. Victories were commemorated with special coins and the use of images of trophies won by the armies of the Republic.




The collection thus illustrates comprehensively the progressively heated political climate of the later Republic, and the various fortunes of charismatic leaders such as Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Lepidus and Marc Antony, as well as those of numerous other ambitious families and individuals.

In-person access to the collection is limited by preservation and security concerns, so the digitization project opens up previously closed doors not just to scholars and academics, but to everyone who is interested in Roman and numismatic history. Rutgers graduate students did the work, spending four years photographing every coin from multiple angles and uploading the images to the dedicated website. They can be searched by keyword, which makes it easy to use the coins for research on a subject that is not literal monetary history.

The coins were collected by Harvard professor Ernst Badian who donated the coins to Rutgers in 2001. Professor Badian researched his own collection assiduously and wrote notes on many individual coins. Those hand-written notes identifying the coins, their dates, inscriptions and iconography have also been digitized so you can see scans of the original notes in his hand as well as transcriptions.

To search or browse the Ernst Badian Collection, click here.



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Update: Ponte Vedra shipwreck moved to safety

April 19th, 2018

Weeks after it washed up on Ponte Vedra Beach, the remains of a shipwreck have been safely removed from the beach to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Construction Debris Removal Inc. donated their time and equipment and experts from the Lighthouse Archeological Maritime Program (LAMP) collaborated to prepare the delicate wooden hull for transport and move it to its new home just over the highway. The team worked all day in the hot sun to make it happen, finally getting the ship to a protected location near the Guana Dam at the end of the afternoon.

The 48-foot-long section of a ship is a weighty thing, hence the front loader. The head of the construction company estimates that it weighed 6,000 pounds. Archaeologists think, based on its dimensions and construction, that the complete ship would have been something in the neighborhood of 100-150 feet long and was probably a coastal trading ship with a crew of around 20 men.

Chuck Meide, director of maritime research at the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, thinks it was built in the southeast in first half the 19th century, not the 18th century as originally speculated.

That, [Meide] said, he and others based not only on the size of the frame members, or what are called “futtocks,” but also those deteriorating surface features that could be seen on them.

Marks on them, Meide said, appear to have been made by band saws and circular saws. Those would have been steam powered and not in widespread use until the 1830s, he said

What Meide called a “deliberate pattern” of alternating softwood and hardwood timbers for the futtocks also added another clue about origin.

“That’s kind of interesting,” he said.

It suggests that the builder was taking advantage of the strength of the hardwood, “but the abundance of softwood would have made it a lot cheaper,” he explained. That points to a smaller shipbuilder in the South as opposed to a more industrial shipyard in the north that would have been more likely to use all hardwoods, Meide said.

The hot sun and roiling waters of the Florida beach were major threats to this intriguing relic. Just as it washed ashore during a spring break storm, it could have been swept back out to the Atlantic ocean at any time. Even as the thousands of people who flocked to see the wreck and read about it in national news reports hoped it would be rescued before that happened, the logistics proved challenging and several attempts at salvage failed. Meanwhile, the sun had three weeks to dry the wood and bake away the extremely rare surviving chisel marks, graffiti and Roman numerals left by the builders that had been clearly visible when the ship first appeared on the beach.

Even though the building marks have faded significantly, it seems the deterioration has stabilized for now. Conservators will now be able to work to preserve the shipwreck for the long-term. The GTM Research Reserve is committed to research and protection of of its estuarine environment, but it doesn’t have the budget or expertise to conserve a wooden hull. The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is taking on that task, and they need funding to do it.

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is trying to raise money to pay for further study of the shipwreck, which includes archaeological analysis, the generation of three-dimensional computer models of the shipwreck, wood species identification, and tree-ring dating. With your help the Museum will be able to pay for the production of interpretive signage so that at least a portion of the shipwreck can be saved and displayed for the public to see. We hope that will be at the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas Research Reserve, which has a Visitor Center very close to where the shipwreck was found, but our Museum will be in charge of the archaeology and interpretation.

The museum has set up a donate link on its Facebook page. So far only $620 have been raised. The goal is $10,000.

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Unbelievable 3D-printed 1st c. Roman helmet

April 18th, 2018

Custom Prototypes has created what can only be described as a masterpiece of historical recreation. It’s made of 3D-printed stainless steel and resin (aka stereolithography or SLA plastic), which sounds easy but is far, far from it. For one thing, steel doesn’t come out of the printer all shiny and pretty. The helmet started out as a dull plastic-looking affair requiring a bristling mass of supports in what would become the hollow part that needed to be removed before the finished product could look anything like the original.

Then all the individually printed stainless steel parts — helmet base, decorative elements — had to be sanded, polished and buffed to a high gloss. Once that was done, the resin pieces were printed in clear plastic, including the fantastic mohawk, and then painted and dyed to look like gemstones. That’s not an easy process either, making little plastic bits look like jade or lapis lazuli or feathers.

It helps to elevate the material when you electroplate the base, figures and reliefs with nickel, copper, chrome and just for good measure, 24 carat gold. Pieced all together the final work may bear zero relation to any actual Roman helmet that ever existed, but it sure looks spectacular.

Most of all, it’s a testament to how much is possible with 3D printing technology and months of hard work. This video documents the fascinating process.

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City Hall excavation rewrites Copenhagen’s history

April 17th, 2018

Last December, archaeologists began a secret excavation under City Hall Square in the heart of Copenhagen. It was kept scrupulously under wraps until February to give the team the opportunity to excavate what is thought to be the oldest burial ground in Copenhagen without risking contamination of the site by curious onlookers. Between December and the end of February, the remains of 20 men, women and children who lived around 1,000 years ago were unearthed just three feet under Denmark’s busiest square.

This is a highly significant find because by the known chronology, these individuals were the first Copenhagers, and archaeologists believe there are even more human remains to be found, at least another two layers of burials underneath the 20 already excavated. Since February, another 10 skeletons have been discovered. These 30 skeletons predate the legendary founding of the city by Bishop Absalon, who was said to have been given the site as a gift from King Valdemar in the 1160s, by at least a century, and upends the received wisdom that before Absalon built his castle Copenhagen was just a sleepy fishing village under the shadow of the neighboring urban center of Roskilde.

The human remains are now at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen where they are undergoing further tests, including DNA analysis. Once the testing is done, they will be studied in more depth at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. This research will rewrite the history of Copenhagen’s earliest days, replacing the founding myth with a whole different category of information grounded in the biological data of the first residents of what would become Denmark’s capital city.

Meanwhile, the excavation at City Hall Square continues and has now added structural evidence to the new history of Copenhagen’s founding. Archaeologists have unearthed a stone foundation that they think belonged to the first church built in the city.

“If it is a church, it would further prove that Copenhagen was an established city at the start of the Middle Ages,” Lars Ewald Jensen, the archaeological head of the Museum of Copenhagen, told Videnskab.dk.

“You can have a burial site without an established city, because there needs to be more elements present before one can call it a city. But then again, you can’t have a city without having a church.” […]

The stone foundation bears witness to either a church being at the location at some point or a dyke that has split the graveyard into two sections.

“We hope we have discovered the foundation of a church building, in which case it would be a church that co-existed with St Clemens Church, which was excavated in 2008, or is older. Potentially, we have discovered the oldest church in Copenhagen,” Stine Damsbo Winther, an archaeologist with the Museum of Copenhagen, told Videnskab.dk.

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Teacher and student find Harald Bluetooth silver

April 16th, 2018

Metal detector enthusiast Rene Schoen and his student, 13-year-old Luca Malaschnitschenko, were exploring a field near the village of Schaprode on the island of Ruegen in Northern Germany when they came across a circular piece of metal. At first Schoen thought it was a random bit of aluminium. After cleaning off some of the dirt and taking a closer look, he realized it was a coin.

Schoen is a volunteer with the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania state archaeology office, so he immediately reported the find. State archaeologists identified it as a silver coin from trading settlement of Hedeby. To prevent the treasure-hunters descending like locusts, they asked Schoen and Malaschnitschenko to keep their find a secret until the Office could arrange a thorough excavation of the site.

The coin was discovered in January, and archaeologists only broke ground this weekend. Still, in this brief period the team has excavated more than 4,000 square feet of the find site. The results have been nothing short of spectacular. They have unearthed a treasure far beyond the expectations set by a single silver coin, a hoard that could very well have belonged to King Harald Gormsson (r. 958-986), aka Harald Bluetooth, himself.

Braided necklaces, pearls, brooches, a Thor’s hammer, rings and up to 600 chipped coins were found, including more than 100 that date back to Bluetooth’s era, when he ruled over what is now Denmark, northern Germany, southern Sweden and parts of Norway.

“This trove is the biggest single discovery of Bluetooth coins in the southern Baltic Sea region and is therefore of great significance,” the lead archaeologist, Michael Schirren, told national news agency DPA.

The oldest coin is a Damascus dirham dating to 714 while the most recent is a penny dating to 983.

The find suggests that the treasure may have been buried in the late 980s – also the period when Bluetooth was known to have fled to Pomerania, where he died in 987.

“We have here the rare case of a discovery that appears to corroborate historical sources,” said the archaeologist Detlef Jantzen.

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18th c. shipwreck hull scanned for posterity

April 15th, 2018

The remains of a rare 18th century shipwreck caused much excitement when they were discovered by beachcombers on Ponte Vedra Beach in northeastern Florida last month. All that’s left of the ship is a large section of wooden hull, but 47-feet sections of 300-year-old ships don’t wash up ashore all in one piece very often, and this one is surprisingly well-preserved. Wooden pegs and Roman numeral markers used in its construction are still intact.

Julia Turner and her eight-year-old son stumbled on the wreckage during a walk on the beach on March 28th, 2018. They had been looking for shark teeth and shells when the found a ship’s hull instead. At first Julia thought it was just some old fencing or maybe part of a pier, but she soon realized it was the remnants of a shipwreck.

Archaeologists from the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum started documenting the discovery that very same day. They made field drawings, mapped the hull and its context. Because it was found on state land — Ponte Vedra is a public beach — the shipwreck cannot be moved or interfered with in any way. Even the archaeologists could only observe very carefully, take copious notes to share with any relevant state authorities who would then determine what to do next. The next day, officials decided to attempt recovery, but the heavy crane necessary to remove such a large and heavy section of ship got stuck in the sand. A second attempt on Friday also came to naught.

The news of the find spread quickly and drew crowds, some of whom were a little too keen to get up close and personal with the wreck. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office had to deploy a deputy to guard the hull while archaeologists did their thing to keep the overly enthusiastic from interfering with the fragile artifact.

Since archaeologists weren’t officially tasked with salvage and the wreck could be reclaimed by the ocean at any time, the team went with plan B and arranged for a laser scanner to be brought to the site from the University of South Florida. On Saturday, March 31st, four days after the hull washed ashore, it was laser scanned for posterity. Now, barely two weeks later, the first 3D model of the Ponte Vedra Shipwreck has been made available online.

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Coleridge’s remains found in a wine cellar

April 14th, 2018

The remains of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge have been rediscovered in a bricked-up wine cellar. Their loss was of recent duration. Just before his death in 1834, the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was lodging at the home of a doctor in Highgate, north London, who was attempting to treat him. When those attempts failed to prevent the poet’s death, he was buried in Old Highgate Chapel near the parish church across the street.

In 1961, an alarm was raised about the condition of the vault. It was derelict and Coleridge’s remains were no longer safe. A fundraising campaign that received contributions from all over the world was launched and its success allowed Coleridge’s remains, those of his wife Sarah, his daughter Sarah, her husband and their son to be moved to St. Michael’s Parish Church where they were placed in a section of the crypt that in the 17th century had been a wine cellar. When the church was built on the site of the former Ashhurst House in 1831, the old wine cellar had been absorbed into the large crypt of the new St Michael’s and largely forgotten. Coleridge got a marker in the floor of the church, but the coffins themselves were bricked up and forgotten about.

[I]n the words of Drew Clode, a member of the St Michael’s stewardship committee, “poor Coleridge was moved from a tip to a tip – they put the coffins in a convenient space which was dry and secure, and quite suitable, bricked them up and forgot about them, and never did anything about the rest of the space”.

As people died or moved away from the parish, the exact location of the coffins was forgotten, until a recent excavation revealed the entrance to the wine vault. The gap was just large enough to shine a torch through the ventilation block in the 1960s brick wall, and the excavators discovered the five lead coffins. They lay not where most thought, in the far corner of the crypt, but almost directly below the inscription “Beneath this stone lies the body of Samuel Taylor Coleridge” on the prominent memorial slab in the nave. “So that was a bit of a clue really,” said Clode.

Pilgrims do visit the church to pay their respects to the poet, and it would be nice to have more than just a marker for them to see. St. Michael’s authorities want to clear the crypt and make it accessible without having to follow a labyrinthine path through piles of brick and stone.

“From a safety point of view it would be quite impossible to bring members of the public down here,” said the vicar, Kunle Ayodeji. “But we hope that the whole crypt can be cleared as a space for meetings and other uses, which would also allow access to Coleridge’s cellar. I don’t think we would open up a view of the coffins, but we could place a suitable inscription on the wall.”

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Ancient Peruvians buried with extra limbs

April 13th, 2018

The excavation of the Huanchaco district of Trujillo which last month revealed the remains of sacrificed children of the Chimú civilization has now unearthed another highly unusual burial: people from the Virú culture buried with extra legs. The Las Lomas Rescue Project, a salvage archaeology mission to fully excavate and remove any cultural heritage discovered at the site of sewer and water extensions, has discovered more than 50 Virú burials.

The little-known Virú culture, named for the Virú Valley which runs from the Andes mountains to the Pacific, thrived in the area between A.D. 100 and 750, before the Moche took control of the region. Campaña’s excavations have revealed a small coastal settlement along with the burials.

“It’s a complex little fishing village,” he says.

There’s particular complexity in many of the burials, Campaña adds, noting that around 30 of the 54 mostly adult burials appear to include not only complete skeletons, but also additional body parts. Most of the bonus limbs appear to be arms and legs. In one case, an adult was buried intact, along with two additional left legs interred right beside the body.

Many of the bones show the tell-tale signs of trauma, both sharp and blunt force. Interestingly, the remains with the trauma also had the greater complement of additional limbs.

This practice is specific to the Virú people in Peru. The Moche sometimes buried individuals with their amputated limbs or with sacrificial victims by their sides, but not with additional limbs alone.

At this time, the archaeologists can only speculate about the motivation behind the unusual Virú burials. One suggestion is that the extra limbs may have served as a sacrificial offering to accompany the dead to the afterlife. Additional lab work will determine if there was any sort of relation between the individuals buried and the owners of the additional body parts.

Other items of archaeological interest found in the burials were pottery vessels decorated with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic motifs, coppery sheets, jewelry, and a large copper fish hook wrapped with gold foil around the center of the shaft. The four-inch-long hook is typical of that used to catch sharks and other large fish.

Now is the portion of the entry when I date myself in an extremely dorky way based solely on my reaction to a picture. Does anybody remember those monkey/koala clips people clamped to their pencils in elementary school in the 80s? It was such a huge thing when I was a kid. I know I had at least three of them. Anyway, this Virú monkey pot reminds me of those koala clips, only it’s even cuter.

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FBI recovers stolen Chagall 30 years after theft

April 12th, 2018

A Chagall oil painting that was stolen in a heist of valuables from the apartment of a New York couple in 1988 has been recovered by the FBI. Ernest and Rose Heller were 85 and 88 years old respectively when they returned to their Manhattan apartment after an Aspen vacation to find it had been burgled. Missing along with the Chagall were jewelry, china, silver and 13 other paintings from their small but significant collection by artists including Renoir, Hopper and Picasso. The building’s security system had remained silent the entire time.

Because of security having been neutralized, authorities at the time suspected it was an inside job. One man who worked there and had access to the building’s security system would later be convicted on federal charges of moving stolen goods across state lines. Some of the counts related to the Heller theft, others to art stolen from other New York homes, so it seems the Chagall fell into the hands of a whole theft ring with multi-state operation.

Even with the insider arrested and convicted, none of the loot from the Heller apartment was recovered. Ernest was quoted in the press at the time of the theft saying that he didn’t think he’d ever see any of the pieces from “a lifetime of collecting” again. Sadly, he was right. He and his wife passed away many years ago, leaving their possessions almost entirely to charity.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team tracked down the painting with the help of a gallery in Washington, DC. According to a complaint filed today in US District Court and titled United States v. One Oil Painting Entitled Othello and Desdemona by Marc Chagall for the District of Columbia, “Person 1” approached “Person 2” in the late 1980s or early ’90s, for help selling the stolen Chagall to persons involved with Bulgarian organized crime. The deal fell through, and the first party accused the second, who wound up with the painting, of stealing the work. (Because of the ongoing investigation into the other paintings whereabouts, the FBI is not revealing the names of any of the parties involved.)

Person 2 brought the painting to the DC gallery in 2011, and again in 2017. An unidentified third party had previously brought the painting to the gallery back in 1989. All three times, the dealer said they could not help sell the piece without proof of ownership and provenance. Encouraged by the gallery, Person 2 finally contacted the FBI, who took possession of the painting in January 2017.

Because the insurance company paid out for the stolen objects, it is technically the owner of the painting, and would be even if the Hellers were alive. In this case it has agreed to waive its legitimate ownership claim and the painting will be sold auction to benefit the charities in the Hellers’ will.

Chagall paintings can go for dizzying sums these days. The most recent windfall went to the former owners of Les Amoureux, which sold at Sotheby’s in New York last November for a record $28.45 million. Experts are doubtful that this piece would be one of the artist’s multi-million dollar sellers, however. The image is a little muddy, not particularly appealing and its many decades on the lam have not done its condition any favors. A similar work recently sold for $600,000, so that’s what it’s been appraised at. On the other hand, Ernest Heller was intrigued by its early date — it was painted in 1911 — and his own father bought it in Paris just two years after it was made for $50, likely from Chagall himself. Also its recent history might make it more desirable because heist stories are always juicy.

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