Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

7th c. inscription found at Tintagel Castle

Saturday, June 16th, 2018

A team from the Cornwall Archaeological Unit (CAU) have discovered a stone engraved with an extremely rare example of writing from the 7th century at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. It’s not a formal inscription; it was carved by someone doodling or practicing on a window ledge at the castle.

The slate ledge was found under the ruins of the 13th century castle built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III, in an excavation that is part of five-year archaeological survey and excavation commissioned by English Heritage. Digs began in 2016, and archaeologists quickly found the remains of massive stone walls. Fragments of pottery and glass imported from Merovingian France, what is today western Turkey, North Africa, the Aegean are evidence of a thriving trade in luxury products between Tintagel and the Mediterranean from the 5th century until the decline and abandonment of the site in the 7th century.

When the stone was discovered, its importance was immediately evident. It wasn’t until the stone was cleaned that archaeologists saw the wording and realized they had found something of major significance.

The ledge includes what is believed to be a Roman name, Tito, and a Celtic one, Budic. The Latin words fili (son or sons) and viri duo (two men) also appear.

Another intriguing element is a letter “A” with a “V” inside it and a line across the top. The “A” may refer to alpha, which is associated with God. One tail of the symbol morphs into a miniature “A”, which may link back to the word fili. A triangle carved into the slate may be the Greek letter delta. […]

Prof Michelle Brown, an expert in medieval manuscripts at the University of London, was given the task of deciphering the inscription. She said: “The survival of writing from this period is rare and this is a very important find. The text features a mix of Latin script with some Greek letters, and a distinctive monogram [the shape based on the letter “A”]. It suggests a high level of literacy and an awareness of contemporary writing styles associated with the early illuminated manuscripts of Britain and Ireland.

“Other examples of writing in Cornwall and western Britain at this period take the form of monumental inscriptions on stones, but this example is quite different, with a writing style and layout suggestive of a competent scribe from a Christian background, who was familiar with writing documents and books and who was practising a series of words and phrases rather than carving a finished inscription.”

Researchers will continue to study the slate. X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis has not found the remains of any polychrome paint, but archaeologists are hoping high resolution scanning will shed more light on the scribe, whether he was left or right-handed, and on the inscription itself, like what tool was used to carve it. The stone has gone on display at Tintagel Castle as of this Saturday, June 16th.

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New study reveals source of Mesoamerican turquoise

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

Or more precisely, a new study reveals what wasn’t a source of Mesoamerican turquoise artifacts.

For a century and a half, scholars have posited that the the Aztecs and Mixtecs imported the prized turquoise they used to craft exquisite jewelry from the what is now the southwestern United States. A panoply of pre-Columbian turquoise mining sites have been found in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, California and Nevada, but the southernmost turquoise mines known from the geological, archaeological and historical record are in northern Mexico. There is evidence of trade between the regions — Mesoamerican parrots, cacao and copper bells have been found at Southwestern archaeological sites — particularly after 900 A.D., so it seems to reasonable to think turquoise might have been the other end of the exchange.

Attempts to determine the source of the turquoise in Aztec and Mixtec artifacts scientifically were made in studies from the 1970s through the 1990s using neutron activation to connect the element signatures from Mesoamerican turquoise objects to known element signatures from prehispanic mines in the Southwest. Some results were published claiming that the signatures did indeed match, but the data itself were never published, so they can’t be reexamined and verified today.

A new study by a team of researchers from the US and Mexico led by Dickinson College geochemist Alyson Thibodeau turned to stable isotope analysis to seek the source of the turquoise in Mesoamerican artifacts.

Thibodeau and her research team carried out analyses of lead and strontium isotopes on fragments of turquoise-encrusted mosaics, which are one of the most iconic forms of ancient Mesoamerican art. Their samples include dozens of turquoise mosaic tiles excavated from offerings within the Templo Mayor, the ceremonial and ritual center of the Aztec empire, and which is located in present-day Mexico City. They also analyzed five tiles associated with Mixteca-style objects held by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The analyses revealed that turquoise artifacts had isotopic signatures consistent with geology of Mesoamerica, not the Southwestern United States.

“This work revises our understanding of these relatively rare objects and provides a new perspective on the availability of turquoise, which was a highly valued luxury resource in ancient Mesoamerica,” said Thibodeau.

What it cannot do is narrow down where exactly the turquoise did come from, because the mines have yet to be found. Turquoise deposits tend to be shallow and small, and since they are frequently found near copper deposits, once the stone is extracted the sites are destroyed in the much deeper and wider mining of the copper.

This results of this study also cannot be applied to the whole period or geographic range of Mesoamerican turquoise production, because the examples used were relatively narrow in date and location of origin (insofar as they are known).

Unless direct evidence of ancient Mesoamerican turquoise mines comes to light, the specific source(s) of turquoise used by the Aztecs and Mixtecs cannot be identified. This is because neither the Pb nor Sr isotopic data are able to pinpoint the precise origin for these artifacts within Mesoamerica. However, the isotopic data provide strong evidence that none of the Aztecs or Mixtec turquoise artifacts analyzed for this study derive from the Southwest. Our data primarily pertain to turquoise objects associated with the Late Postclassic Aztec Empire and do not provide evidence about the source(s) of Mesoamerican turquoise artifacts from other regions or time periods. However, based on these findings, we suggest that turquoise may not have been an important component of long-distance trade between the Southwest and Mesoamerica.

The study has been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read in its entirety here.

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Opulent imperial-era home found at Milvian Bridge

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of an opulent imperial-era residence on the banks of the Tiber near the Milvian Bridge. The site was found last November during a preventative archaeology survey in advance of utility works, but excavations were suspended and trenches filled in out of concern that the seasonal rise of the water level in the Tiber would damage the ancient remains.

Excavations have started again in the spring. Only a fraction of the structure has been unearthed and the team still sin’t certain whether it was a villa or smaller private dwelling. The part that has been exposed is contains mosaic floors in the luxurious opus sectile, a mosaic style which used polychrome marbles instead of the small, even tesserae tiles, arranged in a variety of floral, geometric and figural shapes. The floors in this building feature floral motifs, at least the ones revealed so far.

They are of exceptional quality, the colors of the marbles vivid and diverse. The homeowner must have spared no expense. It is incongruous, however, that such a high-end edifice decorated in precious materials would have been built so close to the bank of the Tiber.

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Burned human remains from Goth invasion found in Bulgaria

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

They were found in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, but there are no tortoises buried with these skeletons. They weren’t buried at all, in fact. The charred skeletal remains of three people, two adults and a child about three years of age, were discovered on the floor of a home in the ancient city of Philippopolis during an excavation of a Roman-era street.

Each skeleton shows signs of dying in a fire. Researchers were able to see that one of the skeletons was a woman who was still wearing two bronze bracelets. Near the bones of the other adult, archaeologists found six coins and a bronze figurine depicting a naked image of the Roman god Venus wearing a golden necklace.

In the child’s skeleton, archaeologists found an arrow head, suggesting a particularly violent end.

The remains have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but stratigraphic analysis and the artifacts recovered from the house date it to the mid-3rd century. In the exact middle of the 3rd century, 250 A.D., the Roman province of Thracia was invaded by the Gothic forces under King Cniva. According to the ancient historian Jordanes, they were incensed that the annual monies paid them by Emperor Philip had been cut off. Their aim was not territorial conquest, therefore; it was a pillage expedition.

The Goths crossed the Danube at Novae into the province of Moesia Inferior where they clashed with the legions led by Emperor Trajan Decius. The Romans defeated them in several encounters but none of them were decisive. Then Cniva did the unexpected and swooped south into Thracia which was barely defended as Decius’ legions were concentrated in Moesia Superior to the west and Inferior to the east. The Goths besieged Philippopolis and took it. What they couldn’t loot they burned; who they couldn’t kidnap for ransom they killed.

Archaeological material from the razing of Philippopolis is found not infrequently in Plovdiv. Just this March archaeologists found a large public building with three floors, the last of which was built over rubble from the destruction of the city. Human skeletal remains from the event are very rare finds.

The excavation has unearthed remains from other periods of Plovdiv’s Roman history. The remains of a triumphal arch from the 1st century was a particularly sensational find as there are only two other triumphal arches in all of Bulgaria, one of them located in the East Gate of Philippopolis. Another remarkable find was a marble slab inscribed with a dedication from the governor of Thrace to the Emperor Diocletian (284-305 A.D.) in both Latin and Greek. It had been recycled into a medieval wall only to drop back down to the Roman context next to the arch when the wall collapsed.

The team will continue to excavate the site and hope to be able to accurately date the many structures and artifacts with the aid of 280 coins they’ve found as well as numerous ceramic pieces.

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Intact 4th c. B.C. tomb found in Roman suburb

Monday, June 4th, 2018

An exceptional intact chamber tomb from the 4th century B.C. was discovered during construction of a water pipeline in a suburb of Rome. It was found when an earthmover opened a hole in the side of the chamber, thankfully doing no damage to its overall structure or contents. By law, an archaeologist must be present at construction projects in Rome and environs, but the area had been worked for a year with little archaeological material to show for it so on-site archaeologist Fabio Turchetta didn’t expect they’d stumble on anything of any import. He certainly didn’t expect to find a complete, untouched tomb from the early Roman Republic.

The chamber tomb was dug into soft volcanic tufa and sealed with a large slab of limestone. It contained the skeletal remains of four individuals, three men and one woman between the ages of 40 and 50. They were inhumed at different times. Two of the men were placed up high on stone ledges. The woman was on the floor of the tomb in a crouched position and the third man next to her. Archaeologists believe it was a family tomb, that the people buried there were related to each other instead of the tomb having been invaded and reused in a later period, a common practice that often resulted in the destruction or damage of earlier burials.

The deceased, the two men on the ledges in particular, were laid to rest with a spectacular array of funerary goods. Two iron strigils, scrapers used by athletes to clean themselves after a workout, inspired the team to name the chamber “The Tomb of the Athlete” even though the interred would have been well past athlete age in their era, and anyway strigils were used for cleaning by non-athletes as well.

A total of 25 artifacts were recovered from the tomb, mostly black-glazed pottery bowls and plates with their white decorations still vivid. The tomb was in such inviolate condition that the vessels still contained the remains of funerary offerings: bones of chickens, rabbit and a lamb or kid. The tomb and the number and quality of the grave goods and offerings indicate the deceased were wealthy people, part of the societal elite.

A coin found next to one of the skeletons dates the tomb to between 335 and 312 B.C. The bronze coin depicts the head of Minerva on the obverse and a horse head inscribed “Romano” on the reverse. The style of the pottery confirms the dating of the tomb to the second half of the 4th century B.C.

The Case Rosse neighborhood where the tomb was found is on the Via Tuburtina, a Republican-era road that goes from Rome east to Tivoli (ancient name, Tibur) and then Pescara on the Adriatic. It exits the ancient traditional boundary of the city through the Porta Esquilina in the Servian Wall, and the historic center of Rome through the Porta Tiburtina in the Aurelian Wall (built in the late 3rd century A.D.). Case Rosse is 10 miles outside of the ancient city of Rome.

The Via Tiburtina was decades away from being built when the men in the chamber tomb died, and the Servian Wall, built in reaction to the first Sack of Rome in 390 B.C. by Gallic forces under Brennus, was just a few decades old. It was a momentous century for the city in many ways. Rome bounced back quickly from the sack and in the second half of the 4th century defeated their Italian neighbors — the Etruscans, the Samnites, the Volsci, the Sabini, assorted other Latin tribes — and absorbing their lands and peoples into the foundation of what would become a vast empire.

The individuals buried in the tomb, therefore, were likely Latins, as the Roman identity was still attached to the city itself and only taking its first steps outside of the pomerium with the dissolution of the Latin League confederation after it was decisively defeated by Rome in 338 B.C. One of the reasons this tomb is so important a find is that its untouched condition and organic materials provides them with a unique opportunity to study the funerary rituals of the Ager, the countryside that had been absorbed by Rome politically but was still not Rome.

On Friday, archaeologists began to remove the occupants and the artifacts, which will be sent to a laboratory for research, including DNA testing on the skeletons to determine the familial connection.

One expert, Alessandra Celant, a paleo-botanist at the University of Rome La Sapienza, carefully collected ancient pollen and plant samples from the tomb — “the tip of a pin is enough,” she said — that she will study to potentially reconstruct the flora and landscape of the area, as well as funerary rituals.

The tomb was mapped with a laser scanner, and once it has been emptied, it will be sealed.

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CT of hawk mummy finds it’s a stillborn baby

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

A small wrapped mummy believed to be a hawk in the Egyptian collection of the Maidstone Museum in Kent, England, has been revealed to instead contain the complete remains of a severely deformed stillborn baby or late-term fetus. The mummy was labelled “EA 493 – Mummified Hawk Ptolemaic Period,” a conclusion drawn from its cartonnage outer wrapping which was painted to look like a bird. Its shape and size was comparable to other hawks and the birds held great religious symbolism in traditional Egyptian polytheism so were mummified in large numbers.

It was first CT scanned in 2016 when the Museum received a grant to create a new display space for its Egyptian and Greek artifacts. The star of the museum’s Egyptian collection, the mummy of Ta-Kush, the only adult human mummy in Kent, would take pride of place in the new gallery, so the museum undertook to examine Ta-Kush in greater detail, working with the Kent Institute of Medicine and Science to CT scan the mummy and with FaceLab at Liverpool John Moores University to create a facial reconstruction based on the scan.

All 30 of the mummies in the collection were also CT scanned, including the ostensible hawk. That first scan revealed that it was no hawk at all, but rather a tiny, probably fetal, human. The clinical CT scanner could not capture the remains in sufficient detail for a thorough examination because of their minute size. The museum contacted mummy expert Andrew Nelson of Western University in Ontario, and he arranged with
Nikon Metrology (UK) to conduct a micro-CT scan at a resolution 10 times higher than the clinical CT scan.

The scans produced are some of the highest-resolution images of a mummy ever taken, and by far the highest-resolution images of a mummified fetus. Nelson and a multi-disciplinary international team of experts analyzed the scans. They found that the mummy was a stillborn male at 23 to 28 weeks gestation who was severely anencephalic, a malformation in which the fetus’ skull and brain never develop properly.

The images show well-formed toes and fingers but a skull with severe malformations, says Nelson, a bioarchaeologist and professor of anthropology at Western. “The whole top part of his skull isn’t formed. The arches of the vertebrae of his spine haven’t closed. His earbones are at the back of his head.”

There are no bones to shape the broad roof and sides of the skull, where the brain would ordinarily grow. “In this individual, this part of the vault never formed and there probably was no real brain,” Nelson says.

That makes it one of just two anencephalic mummies known to exist (the other was described in 1826), and by far the most-studied fetal mummy in history. […]

The research provides important clues to the maternal diet – anencephaly can result from lack of folic acid, found in green vegetables – and raises new questions about whether mummification in this case took place because fetuses were believed to have some power as talismans, Nelson says.

“It would have been a tragic moment for the family to lose their infant and to give birth to a very strange-looking fetus, not a normal-looking fetus at all. So this was a very special individual,” Nelson says.

There are only nine mummies of human fetuses known to exist and this is the only anencephalic one to have been scientifically studied. It is a unique find and of great archaeological significance, much more so than the mummy of Ta-Kush which launched the project. It wasn’t going to go on display in the new gallery; it will be an important part of it now.

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Two skeletons found in one Roman sarcophagus in Serbia

Saturday, June 2nd, 2018

The skeletal remains of two people were found in a Roman sarcophagus at the archaeological site of Viminacium, a few miles east of the modern town of Kostolac, on the Danube in eastern Serbia. The sarcophagus is massive, carved out of solid stone. The lid is broken, but if the remains and grave goods were interfered with by looters, they didn’t do a very thorough job.

Ilija Mikic, an anthropologist at the site, said the skeletons were of a tall, middle-aged man and a slim younger woman.

In addition to three delicate glass perfume bottles, the woman had golden earrings, a necklace, a silver mirror and several expensive hair pins, while a silver belt buckle and remains of shoes were found lying around the man.

“According to grave goods … we can conclude that these two people surely belonged to a higher social class,” Mikic said.

The quality and dimensions of the sarcophagus alone attest to that. It would have been hugely expensive in its day.

Founded in the 1st century A.D., Viminacium became the capital of the province of Moesia Superior and grew into one of the largest cities in the empire with a peak population of 40,000. Its position on the Danube made it a military and commercial center for movement between West and East, and the small fraction of it that has been excavated has unearthed archaeological remains of streets, squares, public baths, a forum, temples, arenas, hippodromes, aqueducts, palaces, an industrial area and cemeteries. Emperors from Septimius Severus to Trajan to Diocletian visited the city before its destruction in the 5th century by Atilla the Hun, and Eastern Emperor Justinian I had it rebuilt in the 6th. It was destroyed for good by the Avars by the end of the century.

Viminacium was the first site in Serbia to be archaeologically excavated, even though the pioneer who led the 1882 dig, Mihailo Valtrović, first professor of archaeology at the University of Belgrade, was actually an architect by training and formal education. He is considered the founder of scientific archaeology in Serbia and it all began at Viminacium.

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Italy’s oldest olive oil found in Sicilian pot

Friday, June 1st, 2018

Italy’s oldest olive oil has been identified in an Early Bronze Age pot from Sicily. The vessel was discovered at the prehistoric site of Castelluccio about 30 miles west of Syracuse. It is the type site of the Castelluccio culture which flourished in southeastern Sicily between 2200 and 1800 B.C. and is known for its distinctive ceramics.

That’s why when archaeologist Giuseppe Voza found 400 fragments in an excavation at the site in the 1990s conservators at the Archaeological Museum of Syracuse took the time and effort to puzzled them all together. Their hard work restored a unique pot unlike other ceramics found at Castelluccio: an egg-shaped storage container three-and-a-half feet high decorated with rope bands intersecting in a lattice pattern and three vertical handles on each side. Voza’s team also found two basins divided by an internal septum and a large terracotta cooking plate.

“The shape of this storage container and the nearby septum was like nothing else Voza found at the site in Castelluccio,” said University of South Florida researcher Davide Tanasi.

“It had the signature of Sicilian tableware dated to the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 2nd millennium BC (Early Bronze Age).”

“We wanted to learn how it was used, so we conducted chemical analysis on organic residues found inside.”

Researchers examined organic residues of an indeterminate nature contained in the pores of the three pieces of Castelluccio pottery. They used Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) and Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) to analyze the residue and found oleic and linoleic acids, signatures of olive oil, in each of the three samples.

This find advances the known presence of olive oil in Italy by almost a thousand years and puts it on a par with the second earliest chemical signature of olive oil in the Mediterranean found in Chrysokamino, Crete.

“With regards to the prehistory of Italy, the only cases known of identification of chemical signatures of olive oil are those of Broglio di Trebisacce (Cosenza) and Roca Vecchia (Lecce) where large storage jars dated to the local Late Bronze Age (12th-11th century BC) tested positive.”

“In this perspective, the results obtained with the three samples from Castelluccio become the first chemical evidence of the oldest olive oil in Italian prehistory, pushing back the hands of the clock for the systematic olive oil production by at least 700 years.”

The results of the study have been published in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal Analytical Methods.

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Man pinned by huge stone found at Pompeii

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

After the discovery of the first complete remains of a horse, the Regio V excavation in Pompeii has unearthed the skeletal remains of a man captured at a dramatic moment of death. He was attempting to flee the eruption of Vesuvius when he was struck by a massive stone that crushed his thorax and pinned him to the ground for 2,000 years.

Preliminary examination of the remains and context indicate that the victim, an adult male about 30 years of age, survived the first phase of the eruption in Pompeii, the heavy fall of pumice which caused the death of many of the town’s residents in roof collapses. He took refuge in an alley after the pumice fall had created a whole new ground level. His body was found at at the corner of the newly-unearthed Alley of the Balconies and the Alley of the Silver Wedding, but not at street level. By the time he got to that alley, the thick layer of volcanic stones had raised it to the height of the first floor, about seven feet above street level.

His choice of shelter could not shield him from the second phase of the eruption. He was hit by the pyroclastic flow of volcanic gasses knocking him off his feet and throwing him backwards. The gas cloud made a projectile out of a 300-kilo (660-pound) stone, possible a door jam, and shot it at his upper body. The top of his thorax was crushed and his head hasn’t been found yet. Archaeologists believe the remains of the skull, whatever tiny fragments may still exist, are probably under the stone block.

Osteological examination on his legs found lesions indicating a serious bone infection. This would have made walking extremely painful and physically challenging. Given his disability, he would not have been able to escape readily on foot in the lead-up to the eruption.

This is the first human victim of the calamity discovered in the Regio V excavation. It comes as a surprise to archaeologists because the area has been excavated twice before, once in the 19th century and again in the early 20th, but they missed this man and the stone block that may have crushed and decapitated him before the thermal shock of the pyroclastic flow sealed his fate.

“This exceptional find, – declares Massimo Osanna – reminds us of an analogous case, that of a skeleton discovered by Amedeo Maiuri in the House of the Smith, and which was recently studied. These were the remains of a limping individual – he too was likely impeded in his escape by motor difficulties, and left exposed at the time in situ.

Beyond the emotional impact of these discoveries, the ability to compare them in terms of their pathologies and lifestyles as well as the dynamics of their escape from the eruption, but above all to investigate them with ever more specific instruments and professionalism present in the field, contribute toward an increasingly accurate picture of the history and civilisation of the age, which is the basis of archaeological research.”

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Ancient Corinthian helmet found in Russia

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient Corinthian helmet in a grave on the Taman Peninsula in southwest Russia on the north shores of the Black Sea. The helmet is fragmented and corroded, but its face plate, even buried on its side, is instantly recognizable as the iconic emblem of Greek warriors from Athena to Pericles. This is a Corinthian helmet of the “Hermione” group which dates it to the first quarter of the 5th century B.C.

Initially, these helmets completely covered the head and looked like a bucket with slots for the eyes. The helmet completely protected the head, but limited the view to the sides, so it is believed that the warriors in such helmets, as a rule, fought in the phalanx and the warrior did not need to follow the movements of the enemy from the side. Later helmets began to be done so that the soldier had the opportunity to raise the helmet and slide back.

The northern coast of the Black Sea was colonized by Greek settlers who, starting in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., built a series of independent polities along the coastline. By the 5th century B.C., the cities were part of the Bosporan Kingdom, a Hellenistic kingdom ruled by two successive dynasties until it became a Roman client state in the 1st century B.C.

The Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IA RAS) has been excavating a late Bronze Age necropolis two miles outside the village of Volna for three years. It contains about 600 burial mounds (kurgans), making it unusually large for the period and area. Many of the kurgans in the necropolis hold the remains of Bosporan noblemen and warriors.

More of them have been unearthed in the 2018 dig season. The team discovered multiple graves of cavalrymen on the edge of the necropolis just outside its boundaries. The warriors are buried with their weapons and their bridled horses. They are believed to do date to the same time and were likely all interred as part of the same funerary rite towards the end of the 5th century B.C.

It’s the Corinthian helmet that caused the greatest stir, however, because it is only the second such helmet found within the boundaries of the former Russian Empire; the other was discovered in a burial mount near the village of Romeykovka, Kiev province, in the 19th century. None have been found in the Greek colonies on the northern coast of the Black Sea, although sculptural representations of them have, as have numerous other artifacts imported from Greece, both high value and quotidian.

Helmets of any type are rare finds, the kind of thing only high-ranking warriors would have been buried with.

Head of the Department of Classical Archeology IA RAS Vladimir Kuznetsov believes that the helmet indicates the social status of the warrior. “Apparently, this is a warrior who died in the battle and was buried not in his native city, but near the place of his death. That’s why the grave is not a crypt, but a simple burial. The helmet testifies to his status as a full-fledged citizen of some kind of polis, most likely one of the Bosporan cities, and also about a certain level of well-being, “Vladimir Kuznetsov said.

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