Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Frescoes torn from Paestum tomb walls found

Friday, November 27th, 2015

A group of five frescoes torn from the walls of a tomb in Paestum, southern Italy, have been found by the Carabinieri art theft squad. The frescoes date to around the 4th century B.C. and depict a warrior returning triumphant from battle on his horse followed by attendants, one of them driving a mule laden with spoils, and being greeted by the lady of the household and two of her servants. They originally adorned the tomb of a wealthy man of the indigenous southern Italian tribe of the Lucanians before looters got to them. Unfortunately, since the frescoes were brutally removed and smuggled into the netherworld of the antiquities trade, we don’t know which tomb they came from or anything about its contents that might give us more information about the tomb’s owner.

The slabs were discovered last May, 20 years after the seminal investigation that first alerted the art squad to their theft. Operation Geryon was launched by the Carabinieri in 1995 after the theft of eight Greek vases from a Castle of Melfi in south central Italy. A fatal accident ultimately broke the case, when dealer Pasquale Camera crashed his car and died. Highway police found Polaroids of what appeared to be freshly looted artifacts in Camera’s car. A subsequent search of his house which turned up hundreds more pictures and a paper trail a mile long which named names, leading to 70 more raids and the arrest of close to 20 people involved in the looted antiquities trade.

The frescoes were found locked in a bank in Campione d’Italia, a town in Lombardy just a few miles form the Swiss border, which is a shocking twist to the oft-told tale because usually the ill-gotten goods cross the border into Switzerland as soon as possible. The collector who was in illegal possession of them claimed he had no idea they were stolen. We’re to believe he saw five Lucanian fresco panels, each of them cracked and damaged in the same way across the middle, and didn’t realize those were the characteristic wounds left by smugglers when they broken the frescoes in half for easier illegal export.

The recovered paintings will be on display at the Historic Museum of the Carabinieri in Rome before moving to their permanent home at the Paestum Archaeological Museum on January 10th.

Paestum was a Greek colony founded around 600 B.C. 65 miles south of Naples on the southwestern coast of Italy. They called it Poseidonia after Poseidon, god of the sea. The Lucanians conquered the city in the late 5th century B.C. and renamed it Paistos. The name was Latinized to Paestum when the Romans took control in 273 B.C. after their final defeat of King Pyrrhus of Epirus whom the Lucanians had sided with against Rome.

The Lucanians left behind hundreds of richly decorated tombs in necropoli around Paestum. They are and have long been a prime target for tombaroli, the Italian term for the grave robbers who, through chains of increasingly well-connected and well-paid dealers, supply the international antiquities market with archaeological treasures that auction houses and museums can pretend come from “a Swiss private collection.”

Browse this Flickr album for a marvelous collection of photographs of Lucanian tomb frescoes from the Paestum Archaeological Museum. The ones with men reclining at a symposium and the last picture of the diver are from the Tomb of Diver and are Greek, not Lucanian. The painting of the diver is unique in its iconography and is the most famous artifact in the museum, so much so that the silhouette of the man diving is the museum’s logo. Wikimedia has a great many pictures of Lucanian tomb frescoes from the museum as well.


7th century tavern with plates still on shelf found in Ephesus

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

The Austrian Archeological Institute (OAI) has unearthed a 7th century Byzantine-era tavern in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus one mile southwest of the town of Selçuk, Turkey. The tavern was discovered by accident during work to protect one of the three main roads of the city, the Embolos (the OAI call it the Kuretenstraße), from landslides. In its heyday during the Roman imperial era, the road linked the Commercial Agora with the State Agora and ran through the valley between the two hills that framed the city. It was paved with marble slabs and decorative mosaics, lined with colonnades, funerary monuments to prominent citizens, public fountains, shops, a brothel and overlooked by luxury homes on the slopes. When those buildings collapsed from earthquakes, sacking and abandonment, the denuded hillsides became subject to erosion and landslides. In order to protect the archaeological remains of the city, the OAI team regularly monitors their condition and takes necessary measures to prevent landslides, like shoring up the slopes and building dry-stone retaining walls to make the site safe and legible for visitors.

They were building just such a wall when they unearthed the tavern. While the street was dotted with many shops, archaeologists were able to identify this one as a tavern because they found an exceptional collection of more than 100 vessels — cups, bowls, plates, amphorae — in perfect condition. Archaeologists even found a shelf with dishes stacked on it ready for service. Low benches, chairs and small marble tables (probably recycled from earlier buildings in ruin) were also found.

According to Sabine Ladstätter, OAI’s excavation director of Ephesus, the discovery increases our understanding of the road as a community lifeline and center of communication in late antiquity when the once-dominant city was in steep decline. The main focus of public, social and economic life in the city moved from the Agorae of old to the streets and the businesses that lined them. The tavern served local food and wines as well as beverages from further afield. The amphorae were found to contain local grape varieties and ones from Gaza and Cilicia, which means that trade was still active enough and there was enough money in the citizens’ hands to make it worthwhile for the pub to stock premium brands.

The tavern’s fate was indicated by coins found in a highly destructive fire layer. A greater than average number of large denomination coins were discovered in the tavern, left behind in a fire so severe that people didn’t even bother trying to recover valuable cash in an era when monetary circulation dropped precipitously to a tenth of its previous quantity and coin was scarce. This was during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-641 A.D.), who for years was engaged in fighting off a Persian invasion. The Persians sacked Ephesus in 616, two years after an earthquake had brought down a significant portion of the city. Then the forces of the Umayyad caliph Muawiyah I sacked the city again in 654-5.

Whether it was the Persians or Arabs or fires in the wake of earthquake that caused the destruction of the tavern, it was never rebuilt. It wasn’t even pillaged for supplies. It was just closed and left to decay as were the other shops along the street. The street itself was swept and kept clear of debris for centuries after that, probably because it was a useful connection to the port before it silted up irredeemably and a straight shot for Christian pilgrims to use when visiting shrines.

The Austrian Archeological Institute assumes that duty now, which is how it found the tavern. The OAI has a long, strong connection to the city of Ephesus. In fact, the organization was founded specifically to excavate the ancient city. German archaeologist Otto Benndorf started excavating Ephesus in 1895, financed by a large donation by Austrian businessman Karl Mautner Ritter von Markhof. Benndorf founded the Austrian Archaeological Institute in 1898, with the excavation of Ephesus as its first brief. The Institute had been digging and conserving the site ever since, pausing only during both world wars.


Pendant found in Bulgaria is among oldest known gold jewelry

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Bronze Age site of Solnitsata near the northeastern Bulgarian town of Provadiya have discovered what may be some of the oldest known worked gold in Europe. It’s a small pendant made of two ounces of what archaeologists estimate is 24-carat gold although it hasn’t been assayed yet. It was found in a necropolis dating to around 4,300 B.C., but lead archaeologist Professor Vasil Nikolov believes the piece could be 200-300 years older.

The earliest known gold hoard in the world was unearthed about 23 miles east of this settlement in a prehistoric necropolis in the Black Sea resort town of Varna in 1973. Radiocarbon testing dates the Varna tombs to around 4560-4450 B.C., so the Solnitsata piece is at least contemporary with the Varna gold and may be older. Unlike the Varna riches, however, this wee pendant was not found in a grave.

“What’s interesting regarding the gold jewel that we have found now is that it was discovered not inside one of the graves but between them, which might testify to some kind of a more special ritual. In any case, this jewel is another specimen of the art of jewelry making that was developed at the time,” the lead archaeologist elaborates.

He notes that the term “jewel” might not be the most precise one for the gold item found near Bulgaria’s Provadiya because it was not worn as a decoration but as a status symbol.

The Solnitsata settlement was immensely prosperous thanks to the salt trade. Salt processing at the site began in the Late Neolithic (about 5500 B.C.) when brine from salt water springs was boiled in small, thin-walled ceramic vases and baked into blocks in large domed kilns. The production of salt increased markedly in the Middle Chalcolithic (4700-4500 B.C.) through the Late Chalcolithic (4500-4200 B.C.) when the method of extraction shifted to boiling brine in large ceramic vases placed inside deep, open-air pits up to 10 meters (33 feet) wide. This allowed salt to be produced on an industrial scale and salt blocks were traded locally and throughout the Balkans on pack animals or possibly sleds. There was no wheel yet, so no carts were involved.

The settlement, which archaeologists estimate had a population of 350 people at its peak, was fortified with wood palisades and earthworks in the Late Neolithic and then strengthened during the Chalcolithic with stone walls whose bases were as much as 13 feet thick. By then the Solnitsata salt complex was producing an eye-watering 4,000 to 5,000 kilos (8,800 to 11,000 pounds) of dry salt at a time (the Neolithic kilns produced about 25 kilos or 55 pounds of salt in one load). At a time when salt was highly valued as the only means of food preservation, the small Solnitsata settlement might as well have been a mint. That’s why they needed such thick walls, to Fort Knoxify the place.

Given that their neighbors in Varna were mining copper and gold at the time, you might expect the salt-based wealth of Solnitsata to result in burials with similar valuables, but the little pendant is the first gold excavated at the site and it wasn’t a grave good.

It’s one of several exciting finds at the site. The exploration of the masonry fortifications is of particular interest as Solnitsata’s defensive wall is the oldest stone fortress in the world. Professor Nikolov explains:

“The [fortress] wall that we are unearthing right now shows that the fortress had a shape of a circle with a diameter of about 90 meters. It is interesting that back then the people had valuable knowledge about military affairs. In order to ensure a better defense, the wall was not made round but its sections follow straight lines. That’s because the round shape would have been harder to defend.”


Roman coin hoard found in Swiss cherry orchard

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Farmer Alfred Loosli was walking through in his cherry orchard in Ueken in the northern Swiss canton of Aargau last year when he saw a green coin contrasted against the rich brown of the soil. At first the he assumed someone had lost it, but then he found another five. This July, Loosli poked a molehill under one of his cherry trees and found another 19 bronze coins. He asked his son to research the coins to see if they might be ancient, remembering that in 2013 a Roman settlement was discovered in the nearby city of Frick.

They called the authorities and in September canton archaeologists began to excavate the site. The excavation was kept secret to keep looters from interfering with the site when the archaeologists weren’t around, and it was productive beyond all expectations. By the end of the dig earlier this month, archaeologists had recovered 4155 Roman coins for a total weight of 33 pounds in just a few square meters. At least some of the coins were buried in cloth and leather bags and probably they all were only the bags have disintegrated.

The hoard in now at the Vindonissa Museum in Brugg where conservators are painstakingly cleaning the coins. Swiss numismatist Hugo Doppler has examined the 200 coins cleaned thus far and has identified them as Antoniniani minted by emperors Aurelian (270-275), Tacitus (275-276), Probus (276-282), Carinus (283-285) Diocletian (284-305) Maximianus (286-305). The most recent were minted in 294 A.D. They are in exceptional condition. Hopper believes they were taken out of circulation almost immediately after minting.

The Antoninianius coin is named after the emperor Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus) who first introduced the denomination in 215 A.D. as a silver piece worth two denarii, but because it only contained 1.5 denarii worth of silver, people raised prices and hoarded the coins causing rampant inflation. The Antoninianius became increasingly debased until by the reign of Emperor Gallienus in 268, the silver content was a meager 4%. Aurelian bumped it back up to 5%, but even that small boost was short-lived. At the end of the 3rd century, the Antoninianius was almost entirely bronze and considered worthless. People just threw them away.

The 200 coins from the cherry orchard hoard, however, are all of particularly high silver content, about 5% silver. Hugo Doppler believes the owner of the hoard deliberately chose the coins with the highest silver content because they “would have guaranteed a certain value conservation in a time of economic uncertainty.” In a rural area like Ueken, there would have been no banks to put valuables in, and the area was subject to several Germanic incursions. Burying bags of relatively high silver content coins underground was a reliable method of keeping the treasure safe.

Significant hoards like these have been unearthed many times in Britain, but are much rarer in Switzerland. Only four Roman coin hoards of more than 4,000 pieces have been found in Switzerland. Two were discovered a century ago; the third was found last year in Orselina, 150 miles south of Ueken near the Italian border.

The hoard will continue to be cleaned and examined. Doppler suspects there may be more exciting discoveries among the coins, like previously unknown mints and denominations. The hoard will eventually be put on public display at the Vindonissa Museum alongside other Roman artifacts discovered at the Frick excavation and elsewhere in the area.


Rich Western Han Dynasty cemetery unearthed

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Chinese archaeologists have unearthed the largest, most complete and best preserved Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.) cemetery near Nanchang, the capital of eastern China’s Jiangxi Province. The cemetery has only eight tombs, but they’re huge, covering 40,000 square meters (430,556 square feet or about 10 acres). The largest tomb has a chariot burial with walls almost 900 meters (2,953 feet) long. Excavations of the site began five years ago but the discoveries were only announced earlier this month, with new finds still coming in.

The site is a city of the dead, with memorial temples, roads and drainage systems structured around the tombs. The tombs are the most intact Western Han yet found, their layout exceptionally clear. The chariot burial is exceptional. There are five chariots, each with four horses sacrificed in a funerary ritual, and more than 3,000 artifacts and fittings decorated with gold and silver. It is the only tomb found south of Yangtze River to have real chariots, or real vehicles of any kind, for that matter.

And that’s just the beginning of the wealth discovered in these tombs. The main tomb was found to hold more than 10 tons of Wuzhu bronze coins, more than two million individual pieces. The coins date to the reigns of three Western Han emperors: Emperor Wu (141-87 B.C.), Emperor Zhao (87-74 B.C.) and Emperor Xuan (74-49 B.C.). Most of the coins were in a pile, but archaeologists found six strands of 1,000 coins each. Ancient sources reference 1,000 low-value Wuzhu coins being strung together via the square hole in the center to create a larger denomination. Based on the documentary evidence, this monetary adaptation was thought to have started in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), but no archaeological evidence of it has been found before. The discovery of six intact groups of 1,000 coins strung together on hemp ropes confirms the historical sources and pushes back the date of the practice at least 600 years. To give an idea of the value, the ancient documents say that ten of the strings could be exchanged for one Jin (250 grams) of gold. Ten Jin was the total net worth of a middle-class family in the Western Han Dynasty.

So far, the excavation of the cemetery has unearthed more than 10,000 artifacts, including bronze mirrors, bells, cooking pots, wine vessels and two exceptional lamps shaped like geese with fish in their beaks which in addition to being beautiful are also practical. The candle was held in the mouth of the goose so that smoke would enter the goose’s body through the fish. The goose lamp’s belly would be filled with water and the trapped smoke would dissolve into it like a one-way bong. (The geese don’t exhale.) They’ve also found jade objects, wood tablets, bamboo slips and musical instruments, among them a se (a plucked zither with 25 strings), pan flutes and sheng (a mouth-blown reed pipe instrument). There are also terracotta figurines known as Kuregaku figurines depicting how the instruments were played.

Then there’s the lacquer screen. It was broken into vertical painted panels. One of the panels has a portrait of a man who archaeologists believe may be Confucius. If they’re right, it will be the earliest known portrait of Confucius found in China. There are pictures of the screen in situ here and video of it here. Fair warning: you can’t see the portrait at all. You can’t even tell it’s a screen, frankly.

But wait! There’s more! On Tuesday archaeologists struck gold, specifically, 25 gold ingots shaped like hooves and 50 large and heavy gold coins. This is the greatest amount of gold ever discovered in a Han Dynasty tomb.

While the identity of the dignitary buried in the largest tomb has yet to be conclusively established, archaeologists believe it was Liu He, the grandson Emperor Wu, the Han dynasty greatest’s emperor who reigned for 54 years (141-87 B.C.). Liu He did not take after his venerable and supremely competent grandfather. He reigned for a mere 27 days, from July 18th to August 14th 74 B.C., before being deposed by the Dowager Empress Shangguan and court officials on 1127 charges of misconduct, most of them revolving around his sexing, feasting, hunting and all-around partying when he was supposed to be in mourning for his uncle, the deceased emperor. He was replaced by Emperor Xuan, the great-grandson of Emperor Wu, who had been raised a commoner after his father and grandfather died when the latter was falsely accused of practicing witchcraft against Emperor Wu.

Liu He was stripped of his titles after he was impeached, but in 63 B.C. Emperor Xuan was persuaded to make him the Marquess of Haihun which had the added advantage of shipping a potential rival away from the capital of his former principality (modern-day Jining) 900 miles south to the modern-day Jiangxi province. He died four years later in 59 B.C. The Haihunhou cemetery is named after the title, which in turn was a feudal descendant of a small kingdom that had once ruled the north of Jiangxi.

Lead archaeologist Li Xiaobin of the China National Museum, who has studied an impressive 4,000 Han Dynasty tombs, hopes the question of who the main tomb was built for will be answered when the sealed coffin in the central mausoleum is opened. If there’s a royal seal or jade accoutrements, that would identify the occupant as an emperor and may even identify him by name. If it is Liu He, it’s probable his wife occupies one of the other tombs and other family members or high-ranking nobles the remaining six.

The regional culture ministry has set up a number of laboratories so that researchers can examine the enormous quantity of artifacts recovered according to their relevant fields — archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, metallurgy, textile studies. Vice Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie wants the site to be excavated with an eye to a future application for the cemetery to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.


Second Lod mosaic found during construction of visitor center for first

Monday, November 16th, 2015

The Lod mosaic, one of the largest and most complete Roman mosaic floors ever found, was discovered by accident during highway construction in the Israeli city of Lod, 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, in 1996. The initial excavation revealed a floor 50 feet long by 27 feet wide with a series of kaleidoscopic mosaics depicting animals at hunt, great sea creatures and fish crowding ships, urns and floral garlands, birds perched on branches and small, individual birds and fish all framed with bold black lines, geometric shapes and intricate knots. The total mosaic covered 600 square feet and was composed of two million individual tesserae (tiles).

Pottery sherds and coins found littering the floor dated it to the early 4th century A.D., and while no other parts of the structure were found, archaeologists believe it was a private home whose frescoed mud-brick walls had collapsed onto the floor preserving the mosaics for 1,700 years. Different sections of the mosaic were installed at different times and designed by different artists. The three north panels — individual animals in hexagonal frames, the largest panel with smaller animal and hunting scenes in triangular frames around a central octagonal mountain hunting scene, the great marine scene — were made by one mosaicist. The two south panel with birds on branches and fish and birds in frames were made by another. The urn and garland panel between them was made by a third artist, the least accomplished of the three, and was likely the last one to be installed. It probably took around three years for the whole floor to be completed.

The exceptional beauty and rarity of find vaulted the mosaic to international fame. The mosaic was opened to the public for one weekend and during those two days 10,000 people came to see it. The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) didn’t have the budget to properly conserve such a huge masterpiece, so after that one weekend of public display, the floor was reburied for its own protection.

In 2009, a $2.5 million gift from the Shelby White and the Leon Levy Foundation gave the Israel Antiquities Authority the wherewithal to re-excavate the mosaic, lift it from the floor (they found footprints and drawing lines in the mortar bedding), clean it and conserve it for exhibition. The three sections of the north panel, the best preserved and most intricate design, toured the United States starting in 2010 and moved on to Europe in 2013. It is now at the Cini Gallery in Venice.

The donation also made possible the construction of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center, a museum dedicated to the mosaic built on the discovery site. The traveling panels were reinstalled in their original location and the building went up around the floor. The center was originally scheduled to open in late 2014, but that date was pushed back, and with good reason. Between June and November of 2014, IAA archaeologists surveyed an unexcavated area south of the previously unearthed mosaic in advance of construction.
The IAA announced Monday that during the survey they discovered another huge mosaic just yards away from where the first one was found.

The second Lod mosaic is 36 feet by 42 feet and is part of the same private villa. The newly discovered mosaic shares the same themes of animals at hunt, fish, birds, urns and floral elements, and is of outstanding artistic quality. This mosaic decorated the floor of the villa’s courtyard, while the first mosaic decorated the floors of several reception rooms where the homeowner would have entertained clients and guests. The courtyard was surrounded by porticos, covered walkways, with lines of columns supporting the ceiling, none of which survive, although numerous fragments of wall frescoes have been recovered.

This elegant, expensively appointed home was part of a wealthy enclave during the Roman and Byzantine eras. Founded by Canaanites around 5600–5250 B.C., the city of Lydda was destroyed by Rome during the First Jewish War (66 A.D.) and besieged in the Second Jewish War (115-117 A.D.) Much of the Jewish population was slaughtered and the Christian population increased significantly in the years afterwards. In 200 A.D. the emperor Septimius Severus granted it city status and named it Colonia Lucia Septimia Severa Diospolis. It was the district capital and a regional center of commerce and government administration. The owner of the villa was part of the city elite, either an official or a rich merchant.

The site is bounded by modern buildings on the east side, so the entire home cannot be excavated. The new discovery will be incorporated into the visitor center.

For an in-depth examination of the first Lod mosaic and its significance, watch these videos compiled by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. First is a short film documenting the original find and the lifting of the mosaic in 2009. The next to are lectures given during the mosaic’s stop at the Met in 2011 about the discovery of the mosaic, the interpretation of its imagery and the influence of Rome on local art.


Inca child mummy genome reveals lost history of South America

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

When a member of a mountaineering club first spotted what would prove to be the frozen mummy of an Inca child 17,400 feet up Argentina’s Aconcagua Mountain in 1985, he mistook it for a patch of grass. The other climbers, knowing grass didn’t grow at that altitude, checked it out and found not vegetation, but black and yellow feathers on the headdress of a young boy who had been sacrificed on the mountain 500 years earlier. With only part of the mummy exposed by erosion, the climbers wisely left it alone and returned to the city of Mendoza at the foothills of the Andes where they alerted archaeologist Dr. Juan Schobinger to the find. Fifteen days later, Schobinger and a team of volunteer archaeologists climbed the mountain and carefully excavated the mummy bundle.

This was a milestone in the history of mountain archaeology because it’s extremely rare that the professionals get to excavate the find before the people who discover it. Folks just can’t resist having a dig, sometimes because they were only up there in the first place looking for ancient treasure, as in the case of the El Plomo Mummy found in the Chilean Andes in 1954, or because they thought it was a recent death and called the cops, as in the case of Otzi the Iceman or out of simple curiosity.

The Aconcagua Mountain region in northwest of Argentina was once part of Collasuyu, the southern-most province of the Inca Empire. It was in this empire that lasted less than 100 years from 1438 A.D. until the Spanish conquest in 1532 A.D. that mountain sacrifices reached their apogee. The Incas built shrines at the peak of the highest mountains — Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia — and there practiced the ceremony of capacocha, the ritual sacrifice of children on occasions of great import like the death of an emperor or in the wake of a natural disaster. The children selected were the most beautiful and healthiest in the empire. They would be given narcotics and alcohol, taken to mountaintop shrines and either left to die of exposure or killed outright.

The Aconcagua child appears to have been killed by a blow to the head when he was about seven years old. The cold and dry of the Andean environment preserved his body, the two wool tunics he was wearing, the wool, hair and vegetable sandals on his feet, and multiple layers of cotton cloths and fiber cords wrapped around him, included the outermost wrap festooned with yellow parrot feathers. A total of 25 textiles were found in the bundle. Because the mummy was excavated with proper archaeological procedures, the exceptional preservation was maintained and additional objects were found in the fill underneath the child: six figurines, three human with clothes and feather accessories, and three stylized flames, one gold-plated and two made of Spondylus shell.

Preserved first by 500 years in a frigid and arid climate and then by careful archaeological practice — a replica is on display at the Archaeological Museum of Cuyo while the mummy itself is kept in a freezer at all time — the Aconcagua mummy was a rare pristine subject for interdisciplinary studies. Researchers found red dye, probably from the achiote tree, on his skin and a red liquid, also probably involving achiote, in his stomach. He’s been examined by medical doctors to determine cause of death, been subject to histological, microbiological, osteological, genetic and environmental analysis. He’s been X-rayed and CT scanned.

Now a team of geneticists has has mapped his mitochondrial genome, a first for any Native American mummy. In fact, not only is he the first Native American mummy whose full mitochondrial DNA has been successfully extracted, he’s the first for whom complete sequencing has even been attempted. Geneticist Antonio Salas from the University of Santiago de Compostela had high hopes that the Aconcagua mummy’s unique preservation conditions might have preserved enough of his DNA to be testable. A small sample of the child’s lung was tested — internal organs are less likely to be contaminated — and all 37 genes passed down from his mother were sequenced.

The boy’s pattern of genetic variations placed him in a population called C1b, a common lineage in Mesoamerica and the Andes that dates all the way back to the earliest Paleoindian settlements, more than 18,000 years ago. But C1b in itself is very diverse — as its members spread throughout Central and South America, smaller groups became isolated from one another and started developing their own particular genetic variations. As a result, C1b contains many genetically distinct subgroups. The Aconcagua boy’s genome didn’t fit into any of them. Instead, he belonged to a population of native South Americans that had never been identified. Salas and his team dubbed this genetic group C1bi, which they say likely arose in the Andes about 14,000 years ago. They detail their findings today in Scientific Reports.

When Salas combed through genetic databases, ancient and modern, he found just four more individuals who appear to belong to C1bi. Three are present-day people from Peru and Bolivia, whereas another sample comes from an individual from the ancient Wari Empire, which flourished from 600 to 1000 C.E. and predated the Inca in Peru. Clearly, C1bi is extremely rare today, but the fact that it has now popped up in two ancient DNA samples suggests that it could have been more common in the past, says Andrés Moreno-Estrada, a population geneticist who studies the Americas at Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato and was not involved in the current work. If you sample just one or two individuals, “what are the chances that you pick the rare guy?” he says. “Most likely, you’re picking the common guy.”

It’s likely only so rare today because the Spanish and their diseases did such a thorough job of annihilating the native population. An estimated 90% were dead shortly after the conquest, and the rest interbred with Europeans, other Native American groups and Africans imported to the continent as slaves making the genes of modern Central and South Americans very distant indeed from the ones of their pre-conquest ancestors. The mummy’s DNA is frozen in time just as he was, providing us a rare window into past peoples. For instance, we know now that it took only 4,000 years for the earliest migrants to America to travel from Alaska to the Andes. The speed with which the continent was populated has been much debated, so this is very signficant new information.

Salas plans to go even further. He is working on mapping the complete nuclear genome of the Aconcagua mummy and when that’s done, he will turn his attentions to sequencing the genome of all the microorganisms in the boy’s digestive tract. That would lend new insight into the evolution of the microorganisms that live inside of us, helping us or actively trying to kill us.

You can read the full study here.


Two pieces of Roman sign found 122 years apart

Friday, November 13th, 2015

University of Reading archaeologists have discovered a fragment of a Roman inscription that matches a piece unearthed in 1891. Both pieces of the marble slab were excavated from the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum next to the modern village of Silchester in Hampshire. The first and larger fragment was discovered by the Society of Antiquaries of London which excavated the entirety of the town within the Roman walls between 1890 and 1909. The piece had two truncated lines of text, “IN” on the top row, “AT” on the bottom. It was added to Reading Museum’s Silchester collection where it has remained for nearly a century and a quarter. The second fragment was found by the university team in 2013 during the excavation of Insula III, a block of the Roman town, just 10 meters (33 feet) away from the find spot of the first piece. The second piece has only one truncated row extant inscribed with the letters “BA.”

While just a small piece of a marble slab, it’s of considerable archaeological significance on its own because it’s likely a remnant of a plaque erected on a building to commemorate its construction or the deity to whom the structure was dedicated. Archaeologists believe the dedication was broken when the building was destroyed in the middle to late 1st century A.D., and very little material evidence of the destruction of an important building has been found in Britain.

The fragment was analyzed by Oxford University’s Dr. Roger Tomlin, an expert in Roman inscriptions. He’s the one who made the connection to the first fragment, finding they were both inscribed with the same style and size lettering on a slab of the same material — Purbeck Marble, a limestone native to Dorset that was extensively quarried in Roman Britain — and dimensions. Tomlin believes they are adjacent pieces, that the “BA” comes after the “AT” on the bottom row of the first fragment to spell out the word “At(e)ba(tum)” meaning “of the Atrebates,” the Gallic founders of the town of Calleva in the 1st century B.C.

Despite this amazing occurrence there could be more revelations to come. The name of the building is yet to be revealed but previous work at Silchester has connected the site to the infamous emperor Nero, as well as queen Boudica who led a famous rebellion against the Roman Empire.

Professor Fulford added: “We now know what the bottom line of the sign reads – however the top line remains a mystery. It’s a tantalising thought that this might link to Nero himself who is known to have commissioned major building projects in Silchester. Our work to uncover the origins of Silchester continues next year — perhaps a name could emerge. It’s unlikely — but this story goes to show that when it comes to archaeology, anything is possible.”

Calleva was a fortified settlement or oppidium that was the Atrebates’ seat of power. Numismatic evidence suggests that it was something of a mini-kingdom first ruled by Commius, a chieftain who at first had been Julius Caesar’s ally in the conquest of Gaul but who then turned on him and fought with Vercingetorix in his revolt against Rome in 52 B.C. According to Caesar’s legate Aulus Hirtius who wrote the eighth and last book of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, in 51 B.C. Commius finally struck a deal with Mark Anthony: he’d take his troublemaking ass out of Gaul on condition that he never had to see a Roman again. Anthony agreed and Commius crossed the Channel to Britain with a small group of followers.

It was that group which built the oppidium of Calleva. Coins have been found with Commius’ name and the names of his successors, so it seems Calleva was something of a city-state with him as its ruler. The Atrebates was added to Calleva’s name in a nod to its founders when the Iron Age oppidium was converted into a proper Roman town with streets on a grid pattern and solid stone walls after Claudius’ conquest of Britain in 43 A.D. The city was at a crossroads leading to important Roman urban centers, so it prospered and was known to have several large public buildings any one of which might have had a relevant inscription slab affixed to its walls.

Both inscription fragments will be on display in the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life through November 27th.


Roman amphitheater found in Volterra

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Last July, workers on a waterway restoration project near the Diana Gate on the north side of the ancient Etruscan city of Volterra stumbled on the remains of two walls 20 meters (66 feet) long. Archaeologists from the regional Superintendency were observing the works and took over when the ancient walls were found. Extrapolating from the shape and direction of the structures already unearthed, they dug test trenches in two locations that would have more walls if the building were, as they suspected, an amphitheater. Lo and behold, they found exactly what they expected to find: two more masonry walls each ten meters long with a marked elliptical curve.

Calculating from the established curvature, the building is an oval 80 meters (262 feet) long by 60 meters (197 feet) wide, which is a pretty massive structure for people to forget ever existed. Volterra already has one Roman theater from the late 1st century BC, early 1st century AD that was discovered in 1950 by Volterran native son and historian Enrico Fiumi who was actually a trained economist, not an archaeologist, and whose excavation team was composed of patients from a local psychiatric hospital. The theater was partly dug into the side of a hill in Greek fashion and seated 3500. Some of the seats were found with the names of the most prominent local families, season ticket holders, if you will. A large section of the two-level skene (the building behind the stage) 50 feet high survives.

There is some mention in 15th and 16th century sources of an amphitheater in Volterra, but the writers were considered less than reliable on the details and thought to have been referring to the theater Fiumi discovered rather than a real amphitheater.

The discovery of the amphitheater caused a stir, but there was no funding to continue digging. The city had to go begging hat in hand to the local bank for sponsorship which thankfully they were able to secure. This September excavations resumed. Archaeologists found two rows of steps and additional architectural features were discovered: a large carved block that was part of the cryptoporticus roof and the base of an entrance arch. Like the ancient Etruscan city walls, these features are made of a porous sandstone native to the area called panchina which is soft and easy to work but hardens when exposed to the air.

“This amphitheater was quite large. Our survey dig revealed three orders of seats that could accommodate about 10,000 people. They were entertained by gladiators fights and wild beast baiting,” Elena Sorge, the archaeologist of the Tuscan Superintendency in charge of the excavation, told Discovery News.

By comparison, the Colosseum in Rome could seat more than 50,000 spectators during public games.

“The finding sheds a new light on the history of Volterra, which is most famous for its Etruscan legacy. It shows that during the emperor Augustus’s rule, it was an important Roman center,” she added.

Tuscany’s oldest continuously inhabited town, Volterra was an important urban center from the 6th century BC through the Renaissance, falling under the Roman sphere of influence in the 3rd century and under direct Roman control in the 1st century BC. Although there’s never been any doubt that it retained its cultural and political significance in the imperial era, the discovery of a second much larger public entertainment complex possibly from the 1st century A.D. indicates the city was more prominent and more populated than historians realized.

The goal of this fall’s excavation was very limited: analyze the remains to get a solid idea of what else is out there. With more data to work with, the archaeological team will be able to design a plan for a more thorough future excavation and a budget. Then they’ll have some figures to use when scrambling for more funding.


Bronze Age tomb groaning with riches found in Greece

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Archaeologists digging near the ancient city of Pylos in the Peloponnese region of southwestern Greece have unearthed a richly laden tomb dating to around 1,500 B.C. Led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, the international team was excavating a previously unexplored field next to the Palace of Nestor. They chose to dig in a place where three stones were visible on the ground, thinking they were the remains of a Bronze Age house. They soon realized those stones were the top of a shaft tomb. After two weeks of digging, archaeologists hit gold, figuratively, that is. Literally they hit bronze, but that was just the beginning.

Inside a shaft tomb about five feet deep, four feet wide and eight feet long was the skeleton of an adult male and an eye-popping collection of grave goods. To the left of his chest was a sword three feet long with an ivory hilt overlaid with gold. Underneath the sword was a dagger with a gold hilt in the same embroidery-like technique found on the long sword. To his right were jewels, among them a hoard of more than 1,000 beads of carnelian, amethyst, gold, agate, jasper and gold, most of them drilled through so they could be strung together. Small fragments of a cross-woven textile suggests some of the beads decorated a burial shroud. Near the beads were four solid gold rings, the most that have ever been discovered in a single burial in Greece, plus six silver cups and an assortment of bronze vessels, some with gold or silver trim.

On his chest were two squashed gold cups and a silver cup with a gold rim. By his neck was a unique gold necklace 30-inches long with a box weave chain and finials in a sacral ivy pattern. At his legs and feet were more bronze weapons, including a sword and spearhead, and thin bronze strips likely to be the remains of a suit of armor on top of his body. (Many of the grave goods were placed on top of his coffin when he was buried. When the wood of the coffin decayed, those goods settled on and around the warrior.

Other assorted finds include: a bronze mirror with an ivory handle, more than 50 seal stones intricately carved with Minoan designs of deities, lions, bulls and bull dancers vaulting over the animal’s horns, carved ivory pieces including a griffon and a lion attacking a griffon and six ivory combs.

Before this find, graves this rich were only found in the archaeological site of Mycenae, one of the great military centers of early Greece after which the period (1600 – 1100 B.C.) of its dominance is named. Pylos was thought to be a bit of a backwater compared to the grand city of 30,000, but the ultra-rich graves of Mycenae were multiple burials. The discovery of the wealthiest single burial in ever found in Greece in Pylos means historians may have to revise their understanding of the town’s ancient importance.

Another archaeological boon from this discovery is that we know all the grave goods belong to this one man. The multiple burials made it difficult for archaeologists to identify which artifacts belonged to which person. One hypothesis was that the grave goods could be divided by gender — men get the weapons, women get the combs and beads — but this discovery shows that a gender division doesn’t work because the man was buried with every kind of artifact under the sun.

There was no name or identifying information in the grave, but the burial is older than the palace of Nestor which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C., so these are not the remains of a Homeric hero.

Explains Stocker, “This latest find is not the grave of the legendary King Nestor, who headed a contingent of Greek forces at Troy in Homer’s Iliad. Nor is it the grave of his father, Neleus. This find may be even more important because the warrior pre-dates the time of Nestor and Neleus by, perhaps, 200 or 300 years. That means he was likely an important figure at a time when this part of Greece was being indelibly shaped by close contact with Crete, Europe’s first advanced civilization.”

Thus, the tomb may have held a powerful warrior or king — or even a trader or a raider — who died at about 30 to 35 years of age but who helped to lay the foundations of the Mycenaean culture that later flourished in the region.

Davis speculates, “Whoever he was, he seems to have been celebrated for his trading or fighting in nearby island of Crete and for his appreciation of the more-sophisticated and delicate are of the Minoan civilization (found on Crete), with which he was buried.”

The team found the tomb in May, but the discovery was kept under wraps until Monday when the Greek Culture Ministry announced it to the world as “the most important prehistoric funerary monument to have come to light on mainland Greece in the last 65 years”

The more than 1,400 artifacts recovered from the grave are now at the Archaeological Museum of Chora where they will be conserved and analyzed. Because so many of the pieces seem to have originated in Minoan Crete, archaeologists are hoping the study of the grave goods will give them a new understanding of the trade networks connecting ancient Crete and Mycenaean Greece.





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