Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Vindolanda toilet seat to get setting worthy of its greatness

Friday, March 24th, 2017

The Roman fort and settlement of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland is perhaps best known for the 1,700 wooden writing tablets from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. that have been found there, preserved for 2,000 years in the site’s anaerobic soil. Because of the unique insight this record of daily correspondence gives us into the daily lives of the ancient Romans and Britons who lived at Vindolanda, the tablets were voted Britain’s top archaeological treasure by British Museum curators in 2003. They have been extensively studied and displayed at the Vindolanda Museum.

Less known are the many other wooden objects discovered at Vindolanda. Almost 1,500 artifacts have been unearthed from that blessedly waterlogged soil — cart axles, bread shovels, potter’s wheels, plank flooring, joists, that amazing inscribed barrel stave and my personal favorite, the only Roman wooden toilet seat ever discovered.

They even found intact water pipes made of alder wood logs, bark still on them, that had been drilled through the length with an augur, creating a hollow center 5 centimeters (two inches) in diameter. There were 30 yards of pipes joined with oak junction boxes to create a network of water mains supplying Vindolanda with fresh water from a local spring. The ends of the logs were tapered to fit a hole in a block of oak. On the other side of the block another hole was drilled and another tapered log fitted into it. That was some quality joinery. With nary a single iron or lead fitting to keep the pipes together and almost two millennia after they were installed, the alder water pipes were still working when they were excavated in 2003, carrying fresh water to a building that archaeologists believe may have been a hospital. Lead pipes, even tile ones, are fairly common in the Roman world, but wood pipes are very rare — usually only the metal collars survive — and ones still in working order are rarer than hen’s teeth. As far as I was able to ascertain, the Vindolanda pipes are unique.

As rare and historically significant as they are, none of these wooden treasures have not been exhibited. Conserving, stabilizing and storing them them once they have been removed from their protective environment is expensive, difficult work. Creating a display space with the technology to ensure the long-term preservation of the wooden objects while making them viewable to the public is a far greater challenge still.

A Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant has gotten the ball rolling. The Vindolanda Trust was able to secure a development grant of £20,400 ($25,400) from the HLF to develop the plans for a new addition to the site’s already excellent museum. The new space will be dedicated solely to the wooden artifacts that have been hidden away in storage for years. Unlocking Vindolanda’s Wooden Underworld will

The popular museum will be expanded to create a new gallery with special display cases allowing temperature and humidity to be kept at safe levels. Not only will this mean their story can finally be told but it will also ensure they survive for future generations to enjoy.

Visitors will also hear the incredible survival story of the collection – from the science behind how they lasted two millennia, to their conservation and the research that is uncovering their origins.

Now, obviously the new gallery will cost vast sums more than the initial grant. This is just the first step. The Vindolanda Trust must have a fully developed and budgeted plan for the new gallery before the HLF can consider a much larger grant for the actual construction phase. Once the plans are complete, the Trust will apply for the full grant of £1,339,000 ($1,670,000). Then we can gaze in awe at the toilet seat and give it its proper respect. Some might be tempted to take a bunch of selfies squatting in front of the display case, but we’re all too dignified for those sorts of shenanigans, am I right?

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Colossal statue not Ramesses II

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

The colossal statue discovered in the Matariya neighborhood of Cairo on March 7th is not of Pharaoh Ramesses II, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany announced at a press conference Thursday. When the head and bust of the statue were unearthed, the massive scale and style suggested it might be a depiction of Ramesses the Great who was fond of having giant sculptures of himself made. He was built extensively in the sacred city of Heliopolis whose remains underly Matariya.

After causing much controversy by removing the massive head of the statue from the muddy pit using a bulldozer, archaeologists took a kinder, gentler approach with the torso. It was strapped to a crane and slowly lifted out of the waterlogged trench on March 13th. The torso alone weighs three tons, the head 1.5 tons. The weight of the complete statue could have been as much as 50 tons; the estimated height is nine meters (30 feet).

When the head was moved, archaeologists noticed some stylistic features characteristic of later periods. Then, on the back pillar of the statue they found an inscription with key evidence for a very different and much later identification: Pharaoh Psamtek I.

Mr el-Anani, speaking at the famed Egyptian museum in the heart of Cairo, said they were lucky to spot an inscription of one of Psamtek’s five names on the statue.

“It’s a part of the royal protocol, each pharaoh had five titles followed by five names,” he said.

“We were lucky to find the second title — the Nepti title — drawn with a vulture and a cobra, followed by the name Neb Aa.

“Neb Aa means the possessor of the arm, which means the mighty.”

The only pharaoh who was referred to as Neb Aa was the Pharaoh Psamtek I from the 26th Dynasty who ruled Egypt for 54 years.

Ramesses reigned from 1279–1213 B.C., more than 600 years before Psamtek I (664–610 B.C.) ascended the throne. Psamtek would have good reason to want to be associated with one of Egypt’s most successful and best remembered pharaohs. He too was a highly effective ruler, both military and political. Founder of the 26th Dynasty, Psamtek I kicked out the Assyrians after 17 years of occupation and reunified Egypt. His reign, almost as long as Ramesses’, was something of a renaissance for Egypt, a revival of its ancient glories, albeit in much diminished form. Psamtek and his successors deliberately sought to emulate the iconography of Old Kingdom Egypt.

Despite the strong evidence of the unique title in the inscription, Enany won’t categorically state that the statue depicts Psamtek I at this juncture, a wise choice in the wake of the overly enthusiastic Ramesses claims. First the excavation team must finish their exploration of the site. There may be more fragments still to be found there. A close study of the inscription and pieces will, hopefully answer some of the questions about its age and identity. For instance, what if it’s both Ramesses and Psamtek? There’s an outside chance the latter recycled a statue of his great predecessor, altering it to make it resemble him more and adding the inscription.

If the identification and dating is confirmed, the colossus will be far and away the best surviving example of an Old Kingdom throwback from Psamtek’s reign. More than that, it will be the largest statue from the Late Period (664-332 B.C.) ever found.

The most urgent issue is the stabilization of the statue fragments. The sudden change in environment from the muddy, wet and below the water table to the desert heat of the surface can damage the quartzite stone. Cairo Museum conservators will spend at least three months helping the statue adjust to its new circumstances.

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Algiers subway dig reveals 2000 years of history

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Construction of a new subway line and station in Algiers has revealed archaeological remains dating from Roman times through the French colonial period. Remains were first discovered in 2009 during archaeological surveys along the proposed subway line. The full excavation began in 2013, recovering archaeological materials going back to the 1st century B.C.

The site is in the historic Casbah area of Algiers which was founded in the 3rd century B.C. by Punic Phoenicians as a small trading post. It became a Roman colony 146 B.C. after the Fall of Carthage and its name was Latinized from Yksm (“Island of the Seagulls”) to Icosium. Icosium became part of the Roman client state of Mauretania in the late 1st century B.C. which became a Roman province under Caligula in 40 A.D. Mauretania was divided into two provinces, Mauretania Tingitana and Mauretania Caesariensis, the latter of which included Icosium.

During the chaotic decades of imperial musical chairs, barbarian invasions, epidemics and economic woes that became known as the Crisis of the Third Century, Berber tribes made incursions into what is now Algeria contracting the areas of Romans control. A fortified city on the sea, Icosium held out a long time, but was sacked in 371 A.D. by the Berber Prince Firmus during his revolt against Romanus, the military commander of Rome’s Africa Province. Icosium never recovered and disappeared from the historical record in the 5th century.

The city of Algiers was founded by Berbers in the mid-10th century. The Casbah, a fortified citadel common in North African cities, was built over what had once been Icosium on the cliffs overlooking the sea. In the late 15th century Algiers was conquered by Spain, but their occupation would not last. The Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa tossed the Spanish out permanently in 1525 and established Algiers as the capital of an Ottoman regency which would become the empire’s primary base in the region. The Ottoman Regency of Algiers lasted until the French took the city in 1830.

The French pillaged Algiers, destroying religious sites like the Es Sayida mosque in the Casbah. Between the French and the long line of conquerors that preceded them, it didn’t seem likely that there would be much of Algiers’ history left to find below the surface. Nobody imagined they’d unearth such a wealth of archaeological materials, even from the long gap between the fall of Icosium and the rise of Berber Algiers.

Finds over the 3,000 square meters (32,300 square feet) of the excavation site include a public building with mosaic flooring dating to the 5th century, a 7th century Byzantine necropolis with dozens of graves, large numbers of Roman-era architectural elements — columns, capitals, pediments — ancient catapult balls and 385 coins. The excavation even found parts of the Es Sayida mosque, a thoroughly unexpected survival given that the French colonial government built a square over the levelled mosque and named it King’s Square, renamed Martyrs Square after Algeria won its independence in 1962.

Algeria has some of the most significant Roman architecture still standing in the world, but none of it is in Algiers. That makes the metro ruins exceptionally important, so much so that the city completely changed its plans for the line and station. The Martyrs Square subway station, originally planned to be 8,000 square meters in area, will now take up only 3,250 square meters and will have a museum built into it. The train line is going way underground, as much as 115 deep, to avoid interfering with the ancient remains.

The Martyrs Square station is set to open in November, part of an extension to the main metro line inaugurated in October 2011.

The museum will open shortly afterwards, covering 1,200 square metres and organised chronologically.

Some of the remains will be exposed to a depth of over seven metres.

“In Rome or Athens, museums present particular periods, whereas here the visitor can embrace the whole history of Algiers over 2,000 years,” [archaeologist and excavation co-director Kamel] Stiti said.

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Unusual pyramid-shaped tomb found in China

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered an unusual pyramid-shaped tomb on the south bank of the Yellow River in Zhengzhou, central China. A small village once occupied the property, but it was displaced to make way for a new residential development to be constructed in its place. Before the new apartment complex goes up, a team from the Zhengzhou Museum of Cultural Relics and Archeology is excavating the site.

On the north side of the construction site near a busy road, the team unearthed a burial chamber containing two brick tombs, the first built in a pyramid shape, the second an elongated dome like a cylinder cut in half lengthwise. The chamber is almost 100 feet long and 26 feet wide and is laid out along an east-west orientation. The entrance faces east and has a narrow ramp leading down to the tombs.

The elongated dome tomb is about 13 feet long, significantly larger than the pyramid, and was the primary tomb which likely held the remains of the most important personage. There’s a hole in the vaulted roof about two and a half feet in diameter left by tomb robbers at some point in its long history. The archaeological team has not yet opened the tombs so we don’t know what, if anything, remains inside either of the structures.

The pyramid tomb was not interfered with and appears to be intact, probably because the looters didn’t realize it was there. While the pyramid shape is unusual for brick tombs, rounded tombs with pointed tops have been found before and the pyramid’s bowed walls suggest a connection to the more traditional form. The burial chamber has not been officially dated yet, but brick tombs are characteristic of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), and there are several Han-era sites in the area, including metallurgic workshops just a mile away.

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Nerd Party at the Getty with Dr. Irving Finkel

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

Dr. Irving Finkel, world-renown cuneiform expert, Assistant Keeper of Mesopotamian tablets at the British Museum and author of the thoroughly delightful book The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, is bringing his enormous brain and limitless enthusiasm for ancient Mesopotamian history and culture to the United States. On April 1st, (no, this is not a clever months-in-advance prank; I deserve neither such praise nor such censure), Dr. Finkel will be giving a lecture at the Getty Villa museum in Malibu. The topic will be the Ark before Noah: the ancient Babylonian Flood stories that predate the version in Genesis.

Dr. Finkel’s translation of a previously unknown Babylonian clay tablet from around 1750 B.C. recounting the Akkadian version of the Flood myth starring Atra-Hasis as the Noah figure revealed a treasury of engineering details about the construction of the great ark found on none of the other surviving Atra-Hasis tablets. It was round, for one thing, and made of woven and coiled palm-fiber ropes slathered with bitumen. There was enough detail in the tablet to allow for an attempted recreation of the ark on a much reduced scale, of course. A wonderful documentary was made about the attempt.

In the lecture, Dr. Finkel will talk about the tablet, his translation and research. It will be held at 2:00 PM in the auditorium of the Getty Villa in Malibu. Tickets are free and can be booked by phone or on the Getty’s website. The auditorium opens at 1:30 and seating is first come, first served.

April 1st is a Saturday. Make a weekend of it, because on Sunday, April 2nd, Dr. Finkel will be back at the Getty Villa being even cooler than he was the day before, if that’s possible. You see, in addition to being able to sight-read cuneiform and write grippingly about ancient tablet inscriptions, Dr. Finkel is also an expert on the Royal Game of Ur, a stone, shell and lapis lazuli board game from 2600 B.C. that was discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur in Iraq by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during the 1926-1927 dig season. It is believed to be a race game where the aim is to beat your opponent to the finish line, like backgammon which may be a descendant of the Royal Game and/or its older Egyptian cousin Senet.

Much of what we know about how the game was played comes from, you guessed it, a cuneiform tablet also in the British Museum. This tablet was inscribed in 177-176 B.C. by Babylonian astronomer Itti-Marduk-balatu, who was kind enough to sign his work. By then the game was thousands of years old and the way it was played had changed. It was also used for divining the future, which is why an astronomer would be an appropriate person to explain the whole system. The front of the tablet has a diagram explaining how to use the central squares to tell fortunes.

As curator of the British Museum’s enormous 130,000-piece clay tablet collection, Finkel has had opportunity to research Itti-Marduk-balatu’s instructional.

This extraordinary board game, played for a good three thousand years over half the ancient world with unceasing enjoyment, has bewitched Irving Finkel of the British Museum since boyhood. Tutankhamun of Egypt played it, as did Assyrian king Assurbanipal. Due to Finkel’s extensive research of an ancient cuneiform tablet containing original rules, we can see why the game endured. In this illustrated talk, he describes some of the remarkable discoveries and heart-thumping adventures of a lifetime’s fascination. Halfway through a magnum opus on the subject, he offers fascinating insight into board game history and the lives of the Assyrians. Be prepared to sit on no more than the edge of your seats.

I CAN’T BE ANY MORE EXCITED THAN THIS ALREADY, GETTY PEOPLE!

Or so I thought. Then I read this next bit in the press release.

Join Dr. Finkel either before or after the talk for a friendly tournament featuring the ancient game of Ur. Learn how Ur was played, compete against your friends and family, and make your own version of a game.
1:00-2:00 p.m. and 3:00-4:00 p.m.
Villa Education Studio/Court
This is a free, drop-in program.

Pardon me while I get a paper bag to hyperventilate into. This is so insanely cool. All you Californians, California-adjacents and California-bound must get to the Getty Villa the first weekend in April. Anyone who plays the Royal Game of Ur with Irving Finkel must report back and I will write you up like superstars you are. (Get pictures!)

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Colossal statue, maybe of Ramesses II, found in Cairo

Saturday, March 11th, 2017

A team of Egyptian and German archaeologists have discovered the head and bust of a colossal statue, possibly of the Pharaoh Ramesses II, in a soggy pit in Matariya, a working class neighborhood of northeastern Cairo. The quartzite statue is 26 feet high. The lower part of the head, the crown, the right ear and a part of the right eye have been recovered. There is no cartouche identifying the pharaoh, nor any other inscription on the pieces of the statue that have been found, so archaeologists cannot be certain it was meant to represent Ramesses II. His temple was close to the find site, however, and he did love to make gigantic versions of himself, so he’s the leading candidate.

Matariya’s mud roads and hastily erected buildings are perched above what was once the ancient city of Heliopolis. A center of religious devotion since the predynastic period, Heliopolis was deemed the home of the sun-god Atum, later Ra, and many successive pharaohs built or added onto temples there. The 18th dynasty king Thutmose III (r. 1479–1425 B.C.) built a temple that was the original home of two of the most famous obelisks in the world: the so-called Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park, New York, and another so-called Cleopatra’s Needle in London. Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten (r. 1353–1336 B.C.) had a temple built to his monotheistic iteration of the solar god, Aten. The solar temple built by Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 B.C.) was so massive it was twice the size of the temple of Karnak.

The German-Egyptian team have been excavating the Matariya site since 2012. It’s a race against time to stay ahead of construction, especially since a lot of isn’t legal so they aren’t troubled with zoning and proper permits. The site is also contaminated with industrial waste, rubbish and ever-growing piles of improperly disposed construction rubble. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the ancient remains of Heliopolis are below groundwater level. Moving large objects like architectural features and colossal statuary, or even life-sized statuary, for that matter, out of the water to high and dry ground is challenging, hence the use of the bulldozer to fish out the head of the colossus.

“We used the bulldozer to lift it out. We took some precautions, although somewhat primitive, but the part that we retrieved was not harmed,” said Khaled Mohamed Abuelela, manager of antiquities at Ain Shams University.

Egyptologist Khaled Nabil Osman said the statue was an “impressive find” and the area in the working class neighborhood of Matariya in eastern Cairo is likely full of other buried antiquities.

The top section of a life-sized limestone statue of Pharaoh Seti II, grandson of Ramesses II, 2’7″ long was also found at the Matariya site. Archaeologists hope to find more fragments of both statues as excavations continue. Conservators will work to piece them back together. If restoration is possible and more evidence is discovered identifying the colossal statue as Ramesses II, the huge sculpture will be moved to the entrance of the new Grand Egyptian Museum which is projected to open sometime next year.

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Blenheim Palace flowerpot is a Roman sarcophagus

Friday, March 10th, 2017

A 1,700-year-old Roman sarcophagus has been discovered on the grounds of Blenheim Palace where it was being used as a flowerpot. An antiques expert who was visiting the estate on other business spotted the beautifully carved bas-relief on a planter filled with soil and tulips and bolted to a lead cistern. He recognized the carving as a Dionysian scene likely of ancient Roman origin and remembered a previous sale of a garden planter that turned out to be a Roman sarcophagus, because it seems estate appraisers in England glean sarcophagi in the hedgerows

He brought it to the attention of palace staff who determined it was the front of a white marble sarcophagus carved around 300 A.D. The quality of the carving is extremely high. An inebriated Dionysus is supported by a satyr and surrounded by his drunken followers, including the demigod Hercules and Ariadne, who saved Theseus from the Labyrinth and Minotaur only to be abandoned by him after a night of revelry with Dionysus on the island of Naxos. Close to the edges of the scene are two large lion heads facing outward.

While there are no records in the Blenheim archives to pinpoint when the artifact entered the palace collection, experts believe it was acquired in the 19th century by George Spencer-Churchill, the 5th Duke of Marlborough and great-great grandfather of Sir Winston Churchill. The duke was an avid collector of art and antiquities, much of which would eventually be sold to pay off his many, many creditors. Installed as a basin to collect water from a natural spring near the estate’s Great Lake, the sarcophagus managed to survive the great sell-off. In the early 20th century it was moved to a rock garden. That’s where it stayed for a century until its recent rescue from tulipmania.

It’s the Grand Tour that started all this in the 18th century. When the sons of wealthy families returned from their post-university voyages through France, Italy and the other history-rich countries of continental Europe, they were laden with art and antiquities they’d collected along the way. Sarcophagi were a popular choice, the larger and more elaborately carved the better. Their shapes made them convenient receptacles and using an ancient sarcophagus as a garden planter became fashionable in upper class households. By the second half of the 19th century, replicas of classical-style urns and sarcophagi were found in gardens all over Britain. To this day antique forms remain popular planters.

The Blenheim Palace planter is 6’6″ long, but the front panel with the relief is the only part remaining of the original Roman sarcophagus. The base, sides and back are missing, replaced with stone stand-ins that allowed the carved fragment to be seen in a facsimile of its original context. Just by itself, the fragment is six feet long, 2.5 feet high, six inches thick and weighs 550 pounds.

The palace called Nicholas Banfield of Cliveden Conservation to remove the ancient piece and transport it to their lab for cleaning and conservation. They cut the bolts connecting the planter to the cistern, liberating it from its prison. The marble surface was cleaned with nothing but water and soft wooden picks to chip away at the calcified crust left by more than a century of use as a water feature. The restoration took six months and now the sarcophagus fragment has gone on display inside the palace.

“We are delighted to have it back and the restoration work undertaken by Nicholas is very impressive. Now it is in a consistent indoor climate away from the natural elements we are hoping it will remain in good condition and survive for many more centuries to come,” said Kate Ballenger, House Manager at Blenheim Palace.

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66 statues of Sekhmet found in Luxor temple

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

An international team of archaeologists has unearthed 66 statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet in Pharaoh Amenhotep III’s funerary temple complex in Luxor.

The discoveries were made during excavations by the German mission in the area between the courtyard and the hall of columns in the temple. The excavation was originally made to search for the remains of the wall separating the two sites.

Some of the discovered statues represent goddess Sekhmet in a seated position, others depict her while standing and holding in her hand the symbol of life and a scepter of the papyrus flower, said mission head Professor Horig Suruzaan.

She pointed out that all the discovered statues are made of Diorite rock.

Built on the west bank of the Nile in ancient Thebes, the funerary temple of Amenhotep III has been brutally ravaged by forces natural and human. Amenhotep III (1386-1349 B.C.) was an ambitious builder and his hometown of Thebes was the recipient of his most ambitious project: a temple complex so massive, it would dwarf the great temples of Karnak and Luxor on the east bank of the Nile. From front to back, it was seven football fields long and covered 350,000 square meters (3,767,000 square feet). For reference, Vatican City is 441,107 square meters.

All that remains above ground of the great halls, colonnades, courtyards filled with hundreds of statues are the Colossi of Memnon, the two colossal statues of Amenhotep III that flanked the entrance to the temple. An earthquake a century after it was built was the first to inflict major damage. More earthquakes, big ones in the 8th century B.C. and 27 B.C., and Nile floods did worse. Once the blocks started tumbling down, the looting of building materials followed. For centuries subsequent pharaohs treated the crumbling temple like a quarry. “The House of Millions of Years,” as the temple was known in Amenhotep’s time, was little but sugar cane fields and sand 3,400 years later.

Armenian archaeologist Hourig Sourouzian has working to conserve and explore the site since 1998, leading increasingly complex and well-funded excavations of an area that was long believed to be of limited archaeological interest. She suspected there was more of the great temple to be found underground, and boy was she right. The site is incredibly rich in archaeological material underneath a thin surface of desert and sugar cane. Impressive finds like dozens of statues of deities, sacred animals carved in alabaster, the pharaoh and his wife Queen Tiye, a beautifully carved colossal head and a 42 foot-tall colossus of Amenhotep III.

Statues of Sekhmet, fierce goddess of war and healing, are by far the most numerous. So many have been found (about 150 by my count, including the 66 just announced) that archaeologists think that Amenhotep III may have erected them as offerings to invoke the goddess’ healing powers towards the end of life when he was ill, possibly with arthritis. The team also discovered another statue, a finely carved and polished black granite statue of Amenhotep III as a young man.

All of the statues are of great artistic and historical value and will be conserved as part of the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project which aims to rebuild some of the temple’s structures and statuary above ground to convey in some small measure the lost grandeur of a temple that, even in utter ruin, still drew crowds of tourists as late as the Roman era.

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The Colosseum after antiquity

Monday, March 6th, 2017

The Colosseum is the most visited monument in the world today. The great amphitheater built in Rome during the reigns of the Flavian dynasty emperors Vespasian and Titus (72-80 A.D.) is an icon of ancient Roman engineering and bloodlust, but it has outlived the empire that created it by 1,500 years. The Colosseum saw many changes in its long post-antiquity lifespan, its architecture altered by activity both human and seismic, dedicated to a wide variety of uses from cemetery to shopping mall to fortress. That rich later history is overshadowed by its ancient resume, and the millions of tourists who flock to the Colosseum every year hear a lot more about the gladiatorial combat of the 1st century than about the butchers’ stalls of the 11th.

A new exhibition seeks to correct that oversight. Colosseum. An Icon is the first exhibition to tell the full story of the Flavian Amphitheater, from the gladiators to the butchers and beyond. It covers the numerous attempts at repair and restoration, how the space was repurposed over the centuries, the construction of brick buttresses in the 19th century to keep the outer walls from collapse, how it became a favorite subject of artists from the Renaissance through the Grand Tour era, launching it as the iconic representation of the city of Rome and ancient Roman grandeur. That image spread even wider when moneyed travelers brought back fine marble miniatures and micromosaics of the Colosseum as souvenirs in the 19th century.

The exhibition also illustrates the profound shift in attitude towards the amphitheater from Christians in general and the Papacy in particular. The last recorded games were held in 523 A.D., an animal hunt celebrating the consulship of Anicius Maximus, and already then the Colosseum was very much reduced. The top gallery had collapsed, entrances were impassable, the hypogeum flooded. Neglect, earthquakes and the failure of the unmaintained drainage system took an enormous toll on the building. Travel writers in the Middle Ages thought it was some sort of pagan temple and associated it with nefarious demonic goings-on.

That demon-haunted reputation clung to the Colosseum well into the Renaissance. Renown goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini had a raucously occult experience at the amphitheater in the 1530s which he recounts in his memoirs.

We went together to the Coliseum; and there the priest, having arrayed himself in necromancer’s robes, began to describe circles on the earth with the finest ceremonies that can be imagined. I must say that he had made us bring precious perfumes and fire, and also drugs of fetid odour. When the preliminaries were completed, he made the entrance into the circle; and taking us by the hand, introduced us one by one inside it. Then he assigned our several functions; to the necromancer, his comrade, he gave the pentacle to hold; the other two of us had to look after the fire and the perfumes; and then he began his incantations. This lasted more than an hour and a half; when several legions appeared, and the Coliseum was all full of devils.

As late as 1594, the Popes were still renting the Colosseum out to glue makers and contemplating converting the whole structure into a factory with residences for the workers in the top galleries. That changed in the Jubilee year of 1675, when Pope Clement X declared the Colosseum a sacred site of martyrdom for all the Christians said to have been condemned to death in the arena. (There is little evidence that Christians were martyred at the Colosseum, btw, and the stories of martyrdom in the amphitheater only began circulating in the Renaissance.) Clement had ambitious plans to dedicate a church to the martyrs inside the Colosseum, asking the great polymath Gianlorenzo Bernini to design it. It was too expensive, though, so Clement just had a cross installed in the arena instead.

The idea didn’t die with him. Twenty years later, architect Carlo Fontana was enlisted to design a prospective Church of the Holy Martyrs inside the Colosseum. Again, the church never happened, but he studied the amphitheater in great detail for this project and wrote a book about its architecture, ancient history, current condition and the proposed church that was published posthumously in 1725. (Random History Blog connection: Fontana’s original architectural drawing of the church in the Colosseum is in the collection of the wonderful Sir John Sloane’s Museum in London.) The architectural model and several of Fontana’s drawings are on display in the new exhibition.

The major restoration of the Colosseum, which is still ongoing, discovered many objects and remains from its later life which are will be part of the exhibition. An abundance of butchered animal bones and cooking utensils were found, a testament to the butchers, eateries and private residences which rented space in the ground-level vaults through the 12th century. Of course they unearthed ancient sculptures and architectural details galore. They will join one of only two surviving statues of the 160 that adorned the arches of the second and third-floor arcades when the Colosseum was first built.

The restoration also discovered traces of the Colosseum’s life as a fortress for the powerful Roman noble Frangipani family. Restorers found holes bored into travertine blocks on the top tier of the southern wall. The holes held beams that supported a wooden walkway used by Frangipani soldiers as a lookout station. The find was announced Monday at the press conference about the new exhibition.

Colosseum. An Icon opens Wednesday, March 8th and runs almost a full year until January 7th, 2018. It’s at the Colosseum, in case that wasn’t clear.

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47 ingots alleged to be fabled metal found on shipwreck

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

In 2014, an ancient Greek shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Gela, Sicily. The ship dates to the 6th century B.C. and was transporting cargo from Greece or Asia Minor to Gela when it sank, probably in storm, just 1,000 feet from the coast. Divers recovered 39 ingots of a brass-like alloy from the wreck unlike any other metal discovered on ancient shipwrecks.

Archaeologist Sebastiano Tusa, head of Sicily’s Superintendency of the Sea, suspected the ingots might be the mysterious ancient metal orichalcum, a material about which much has been said and almost nothing known. In the dialogue Critias, the 4th century B.C. philosopher Plato describes orichalcum as a material already legendary in his time. The metal features prominently in his description of the fabled wealth of the lost island of Atlantis.

For because of the greatness of their empire many things were brought to them from foreign countries, and the island itself provided most of what was required by them for the uses of life. In the first place, they dug out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile, and that which is now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold.

And because Atlantis had something of a Vegas thing going on, they didn’t refrain from showing off their riches.

The entire circuit of the wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated with tin, and the third, which encompassed the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum.

In the interior of the temple the roof was of ivory, curiously wrought everywhere with gold and silver and orichalcum; and all the other parts, the walls and pillars and floor, they coated with orichalcum.

Each of the ten kings in his own division and in his own city had the absolute control of the citizens, and, in most cases,
of the laws, punishing and slaying whomsoever he would. Now the order of precedence among them and their mutual relations were regulated by the commands of Poseidon which the law had handed down. These were inscribed by the first kings on a pillar of orichalcum, which was situated in the middle of the island, at the temple of Poseidon….

The composition of this metal has been subject to much debate. Most scholars lean towards it being a brass-like alloy of zinc and copper that the ancients created by mixing zinc ore, copper and charcoal in a crucible. That could create a metal that “flashed with red light.” There is no consensus on this, however, and other theories abound. The Gela ingots were subjected to X-ray fluorescence analysis and were found to be made of an alloy of 75-80% copper, 15-20% zinc and trace amounts of nickel, lead and iron. This fits neatly with the zinc-copper alloy theory of orichalcum.

It makes sense that a valuable cargo like this would be headed to Gela. Founded around 688 B.C. by Greek colonists, Gela (then known as Ghelas) became an important Greek colony almost immediately. Only a century later, around the time when the ship sank, Gela was the most important city in Sicily. It even had its own offshoot colony, Agrigento, home of the Temple of Concord and that awesome story about the archbishop, the prostitute conspiracy and the trial with the shocking twist ending. Its government and residents had access to the best artisans and could afford the most prized materials.

The shipwreck is still being excavated. Earlier this month, divers discovered 47 more ingots of the alleged orichalcum, bring the total haul to a mind-boggling 86. They also recovered an amphora, a bottle from Massalia (modern-day Marseille), the first Greek colony in what is today France, and a pair of Corinthian helmets in outstanding condition. It’s not clear whether all of these artifacts were cargo on the same ship — there are two other known archaic shipwrecks in the area — but they were found in close proximity in a topographically homogeneous area, so Tusa believes they were indeed shipmates.

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