Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Europe’s “oldest known battle” may have been massacre instead

Tuesday, October 27th, 2020

I’m glad I put a question mark on my first post about this story in 2011, because the Bronze Age mass-death site in Tollense, northeastern Germany, may not have been Europe’s oldest known battle after all.

First a recap. Archaeologists have excavated more than 12,000 human bones in the Tollense River Valley since a humerus bone with a flint arrowhead viciously embedded it was discovered in 1996.  The arrowhead dated the fatal event to around 1250 B.C., a date confirmed by radiocarbon analysis of later finds. Initial studies of the skeletal remains of 145 individuals that could be pieced together identified numerous wounds inflicted by long-range weapons (arrows, lances), blunt weapons (wooden clubs) and short-range melee weapons (swords, daggers). The bones also predominantly belonged to young males, some with healed wounds suggesting they had fought before and lived to do it again. Stable isotope analysis and DNA revealed that they were not all local. Artifacts found at the site confirmed an armed clash had taken place. Dozens of weapons were found — more than 50 bronze arrowheads, swords, clubs, an axe. The skeletal remains of several horses were also unearthed from the riverbed.

Then in 2016, divers recovered a cache of scrap metal and tools in the Tollense riverbed. Tightly packed together were fragments of bronze sheets and ingots, a chisel, sickle knife, a bronze awl, brooches, a bronze spiral and a star-ornamented belt box. These was deemed to be the toolkit of one of the combatants, the first personal belongings found on a battlefield. There was no evidence of who they belonged to; the warrior hypothesis was based on the understanding of the battle context.

The discovery of this cache and other tools, plus pewter rings (portable sources of the tin necessary to make bronze), gold spiral rings and smaller bronze spirals believed to have been trimmings on clothes, made archaeologists suspicious that there were civilians in the mix, not just warriors. Recent studies of the bones found the remains of women and even children as well as the men. There were individuals whose legs showed signs of heavy labour but whose upper bodies showed no equivalent stresses. This is evidence that they walked a great deal bearing heavy burdens. Had they been warriors, the bones of the upper body would bear evidence of more developed musculature and repetitive stress.

Isotope and DNA analysis of the remains of 12 men and two women revealed they came from different parts of northern and central Europe. There was no genetic homogeneity in the group so they were not related. This was therefore not a battle between locals and foreigners or an army invading from the south.

Detlef Jantzen, chief archaeologists for the State Office for Education, Science and Culture of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, now believes the encounter in Tollense may not have been a battle, but a massacre. The victims were part of a trade caravan who were ambushed at the bridge crossing over the river. Caravans had armed security which put up a fight, but they were overwhelmed and slaughter ensued.

Jantzen also sees the number of participants in the conflict less today than it was years ago, when it was assumed that thousands of warriors collided. “I’m not repeating the number,” he said. More than 12,000 human bones were recovered and about 140 individuals examined by anthropologists. Most of them died of stab wounds and cuts, and some arrowheads were still stuck in the bones.

Jantzen assumes that the majority of those found were among the defeated. The victors would probably have taken their dead and buried them. However, no Bronze Age graves were found on the surrounding areas. The victims were looted and left lying. Another indication that it was not a cavalry battle is the texture of the horse bones. The investigations would have shown that the horses were actually not old enough to ride. They could have been carried as a trade item.

“The interpretation of the incident in the Tollensetal has not yet been completed,” said Jantzen. “We will continue to investigate.”


Roman sacred building found in Baden rubble

Friday, October 23rd, 2020

The excavation of the Kurplatz square in downtown Baden, Switzerland, has revealed even more remains of the city’s ancient Roman baths, altars and a sacred building. At the western end of the square near the most important of the mineral springs, archaeologists discovered a large amount of rubble rich with architectural fragments like cornices and altar stones. These are the remains of a cult building once associated with the baths.

The Roman spa town Aquae Helveticae, renamed Baden in the Middle Ages, grew around the hot mineral springs in a bend of the Limmat river. They are the warmest and most mineral of Switzerland’s thermal springs and were considered by the Romans to have healing properties.

Cult buildings in the immediate vicinity of a thermal spring were not uncommon in Roman times, but the rule. As numerous examples from Gaul, Germania and Italy show, the use of thermal water for healing purposes was closely inseparable from ritual acts. […]

The new finds now show a sacred building in which several altars stood and in which votive offerings were deposited. In addition, a fragment of a monumental inscription was found in the rubble, which was probably previously walled in a building. The inscription is currently being analyzed by experts. The inscription may name the founder and addressee of the associated building.

Roman altar with inscription found in the rubble. Photo courtesy Kantonsarchäologie, © Kanton Aargau.When excavations in the Kurplatz began this spring, archaeologists discovered a Roman bathing basin (late 1st, early 2nd century) later connected to the St. Verena Baths built in the Middle Ages and in continuous use as a public bath until 1840. The basin and conduit from the St. Verena Baths will be excavated further in the next few weeks.


Large Roman building found in Switzerland

Wednesday, October 21st, 2020

Archaeologists excavating the site of a new apartment building in Brig-Glis, south central Switzerland, have discovered remains of unexpectedly large and architecturally significant Roman-era buildings. Within an area of 8600 square feet, the team discovered the remains of two buildings and a commercial kiln.  Fragments of pottery vessels from northern Gaul date the buildings to between the 3rd and 5th centuries.

The largest of the two buildings had walls made of masonry and mortar. The excavation revealed a section of wall 30 feet long which means the building was of exceptional size for the time and place. It extends beyond the perimeter of the dig site. This is only the second Roman masonry building ever found in the Canton of Haut-Valais, and the other one was a very small sanctuary discovered during highway construction nearby.

The second building is more than 430 square feet in area. It had dry stone walls built with no mortar. A clay and wood building attached to it contained a kiln used in the production of lime.

The Simplon Alpine pass, today famed for its tunnel and the Orient Express train that runs through it, connects Brig-Glis with Domodossola in Piedmont, Italy. Emperor Septimius Severus had a mule track built over the pass in 196 A.D. and the Simplon Road brought Roman trade and cultural influence into what is now Valais.

Archaeologists believe that the newly-discovered buildings were agricultural outbuildings and artisanal workshops associated with a small settlement that grew on the Simplon Road. The scale and architecture of the structures and the quality of the imported ceramics found there indicates the area was far more Romanized than previously realized.


Snake altar found in ancient Lycian city

Tuesday, October 20th, 2020

A cylindrical altar carved with the figure of a snake winding around it has been discovered at the archaeological site of Patara in southwestern Turkey’s Antalya district. Archaeologists unearthed the altar in an excavation of the Roman-era public baths near the ancient city walls. The marble altar was originally associated with a tomb and would have been used to leave offerings of food or drink to the gods for the benefit of the deceased. Its find site at the baths, built under Nero in the 60s A.D., and the style of the carving dates it to the Roman era, about 2,000 years ago.

(Fun fact: the dedicatory inscription found on one of the doorways between the frigidarium and the tepidarium gives all credit for the construction of the baths to Vespasian. The surviving parts read: “The bath was built from scratch by the ultimate ruler, sacred Flavius Vespasianus… during the time of military governor Sextus Marcus Priscus by using the security funds collected from the people and with contributions of the military unit with all of the ornaments and decorations and swimming pool.”

Epigraphers discovered that the initial lines of the inscription were scraped off and Vespasian’s name engraved over the erasure. The long arm of the Roman senate’s damnatio memoriae of Nero, perhaps? Or maybe just a courtesy carve-out to pretend the emperor who repaired the bath and the aqueduct that supplied it was the one who built it. The “from scratch” bit does seem a little heavy-handed.)

Located on the Mediterranean coast of southwestern Lycia, the Hellenistic city was founded in the 8th century B.C. and prospered as a harbor city connecting trade from the Mediterranean to the interior via the Xanthus River which flowed through the city in antiquity. Patara, which according to the legend was founded by Apollo’s son Patarus, was renown for its Temple of Apollo and oracle. The former was second in importance only to the temple at Delos; the latter only to the oracle at Delphi. Apollo himself was said to live there, summering at Delos but enjoying the fine winter climate at Patara. Because of this, ancient chroniclers claim, the priestess only worked the oracle at Patara in the winter.

Snakes are central to the mythology of Apollo, particular to his oracles. Apollo slew the Python, the underworld deity who relayed messages from his mother Gaia to petitioners at the Delphic oracle, and replaced him as the god of record in Delphi. Python’s priestesses kept their jobs under the new administration, and the main priestess of the oracle at Delphi was thereafter called the Pythia.

The remains of the famous Temple of Apollo have yet to be discovered, but a large bust of the god unearthed just inside the city gate is believed to have adorned it. The city’s association with Apollo is also evident in its coinage. He appears on drachms from the 2nd century B.C. all the way through to imperial coinage of the emperor Gordian III in the 3rd century. Several of the Gordian issues feature a serpent coiled around a tripod cauldron. One features Apollo standing inside his temple with a serpent-wrapped column to his right.

The altar will now be cleaned, conserved and studied and when the work is complete, it will be exhibited at the Demre Museum.


I can haz Nazca line?

Sunday, October 18th, 2020

A massive geoglyph of a feline has been discovered lounging against a hillside in the Nazca Desert of southern Peru. The cat is in profile, except for his head which is facing front, and is in a horizontal orientation 37 meters (121 feet) long. It was drawn on the steep slope of the Mirador Natural hill in lines up to 16 inches thick. Its design style identifies the feline as a Late Paracas period glyph (ca. 200-100 B.C.) which means it predates the ones created by the Nazca people. Cats were a popular zoomorphic motif on Paracas textiles and ceramics.

El Mirador Natural got its name (meaning “natural lookout point”) because its rocky peak is a perfect location to view several of the great geoglyphs of the Nasca Pampa in one fell swoop. Archaeologists and technical staff from Peru’s Ministry of Culture were maintaining the site when they discovered the figure. The line drawing etched into the hillside had suffered from heavy erosion and was all but invisible to the naked eye.

Last week, the cat got groomed. Experts cleaned and conserved the drawing so that it can once again be seen in all its gigantic glory. Now the lookout has become the lookee.


Hittite cuneiform texts digitized

Friday, October 16th, 2020

A team led by researchers at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz will be fully transcribing, translating and digitizing a vast collection of 30,000 Hittite-language cuneiform tablets engraved on clay in Anatolia 3,500 years ago, fired and preserved. The project has just been funded to the tune of EUR 520,000 and is expected to take three years.

“This enormous funding can also be seen as recognition of Mainz as a research hub, where Hittitology has been a mainstay since the 1960s,” said Professor Doris Prechel of the Department of Ancient Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and partner in the collaborative project. The Hittitology Archive at the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz holds the world’s largest collection of transliterated Hittite writings, in other words, texts which have been converted from the original cuneiform into the Latin alphabet. “We have a fantastic starting point here, and with the digital thesaurus we can achieve a breakthrough for Hittitology worldwide.” Prechel and her group at JGU will be contributing to the project by compiling a collection of texts on summoning rituals. These rituals mostly took the form of magical invocations designed, among other things, to gain the goodwill of the gods and protect the royal family or the political system from danger.

The cooperation partners intend to bring the remains of the Hittite culture into the 21st century. A large proportion of the 30,000 clay tablets and fragments found in the then Hittite capital of Hattusa and documented on over one million index cards are already available in digitized form. They will now be suitably adapted and provided with commentaries. The collection of texts will be accessible online via the new Hittitology Platform Mainz. It will also be possible to integrate any new cuneiform texts found at Hittite sites in future. Thus, the new platform will be a kind of living archive of cuneiform transcripts and make available a completely new way of accessing source texts for researching the culture and history of the Hittites.

The project will have other research applications as well because Hittite is the oldest known surviving Indo-European language, the language group that includes all of the languages of Europe, northern India and the Persian Plateau. Most people in the world spread out over all the populated continents speak one.

The current Hittitology Platform Mainz already has a large database of digitized Hittite tablets, but it’s a little unwieldy to navigate, is mostly in German and if there are any photographs in the digitized entries, I haven’t found them yet. It will be greatly expanded over the next three years.


Torlonia marbles exhibit opens. Seriously!

Wednesday, October 14th, 2020

Four years after the agreement was signed to display a selection of ancient sculptures from the unparalleled collection of the princely Torlonia family, one year after the announcement that would finally go on display in March 2020, and seven months after that date came and went, the Torlonia marbles exhibit has actually opened. Ninety-six marbles of the 620 in the collection have gone on display at the Palazzo Caffarelli, a newly-renovated venue that is part of the Musei Capitolini system.

This is the first time the general public has been able to see any of the Torlonia masterpieces in person since the 1940s. The Museo Torlonia, the private museum in Trastevere where the  ancient statues, reliefs, vases and busts the Torlonia amassed primarily by buying entire collections from impoverished Roman nobility, closed its doors in 1976. Not that they were ever wide open. Founded in 1875, the museum was very exclusive, with access granted to invited guests, dignitaries and scholars. So 101 years after the private museum opened, it was shut down on the pretext of roof repair. In fact, the Torlonia illegally converted the building into apartments and tossed the priceless collection into the basement to collect dust.

Since then, the state has tried to acquire the or at least arrange for its permanent display but for decades all dealmaking attempts and court cases failed. The 2016 agreement was a major breakthrough, but new problems cropped up when the pater familias Prince Alessandro Torlonia died in 2017. Those were sorted out just in time to hit the COVID wall. We’ll see if the Torlonia marbles manage to stay on display as planned this time. The exhibition is scheduled to run through June 29th, 2021.

The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces is arranged in five sections. Room 1 is dedicated to the Museo Torlonia. It includes the famous 1884 catalogue of its 620 marbles which was the first catalogue of an ancient sculpture collection to use photographs of all the works instead of illustrations. Room 2 features works excavated from Torlonia properties in the 19th century. Section 3 covers three rooms and is dedicated to the many marbles acquired from the 18th century collections of the Albani family and sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi. Section 4 (in four rooms) features works collected by Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani in the 17th century. The final section spotlights pieces from 15th and 16th century collections of distinguished Roman families.

In a nod to the seminal catalogue that first documented the collection of the Museo Torlonia, a catalogue of the exhibition has been published that covers the artworks on display in exhaustive detail, from provenance to restorations to the latest research. Essays by specialists contextualize the pieces, delving into the history of antiquities collecting and museums themselves. The catalogue is available in English and can be bought online.


Merovingian-era settlement excavated in France

Tuesday, October 13th, 2020

Archaeologists have unearthed a full Merovingian settlement complete with church and burial ground in Pontarlier, eastern France. Grave goods including weapons and jewelry indicate the settlement was a prosperous one, not a sleepy pastoral village.

It was strategically located near the village of Pontarlier, formerly the ancient waystation of Ariolica on the Roman road between modern-day Orbe, Switzerland, and Besançon, France. Pontarlier became even more important after the Burgundian invasions of the 5th century as a key trading center linking Burgundy’s territories to Switzerland, German and Lombard northern Italy. It was also the only reliable pass over the Jura Mountains well into the 17th century.

The site was occupied for 150 to 200 years in the 6th and 7th centuries. The settlement was built quickly according to a plan found in Germanic territories from this period in Switzerland and Bavaria, but never before in France. Ten large rectangular buildings were at the center, each supported by massive corner poles three feet in diameter. These large structures had two distinct areas: one half partitioned into smaller spaces, the other half wide open. The former is believed to have been the living space for humans, the latter for animals.

The church was built a little ways apart from the large dwellings and the smaller structures at the center of the village. Based on the size and position of the postholes, we know the church was a wooden building about 65 feet long and 46 feet wide designed on a basilica plan. It is one of the oldest churches in the Jura Mountains and its architecture is unique in the area for its time. No other examples are known in France or Switzerland.

One tomb was found inside the church, and three more next to it. The prime location indicates these may have been members of the family that founded the village and/or sponsored the construction of the church. The women buried near the church were laid to rest with expensive jewelry like a fibula with cloisonné garnets, gold-plated earrings and glass beads. Another 70 graves were unearthed located in different spots throughout the settlement.

The settlement’s economy appears to have revolved around raising livestock. A cattle slaughter site a few thousand square feet in area has been found a few yards from the village. Radiocarbon dating results confirm that it was in use at the time the village was occupied in the 7th century. Of the thousands of bones at the slaughter site, most are from oxen and horses. The village likely bred the livestock for slaughter.

The non-local house plans, the rapid founding and growth of the village suggests the population was transplanted, not naturally evolved in the area. This was a frequent practice for conquering peoples like the Burgundians and Franks. They seeded their new territories with their own people, and this spot at a key transit area for trade between Italy and France would have been crucial to claim and control as quickly as possible.

The site was abandoned as quickly as it was built. The departures appear to have been orderly and non-violent, so the population was either consolidated with that of Pontarlier or moved away for other reasons (easier defense, better economic opportunity, etc.).


Mosaics from luxury Roman villa found under luxury Roman condos

Monday, October 12th, 2020

The Domus Aventino is a high-end condominium complex offering all technology, comfort, amenities, energy efficiency and round-the-clock of new construction in the historic surroundings of Piazza Albania at the foot of Rome’s Aventine Hill. Three buildings, built in the 1950s and for decades headquarters of a bank, were converted into 180 luxury apartments and penthouses. Installation of new earthquake-resistant foundations in 2014 revealed ancient remains which were excavated by archaeologists from the Special Superintendency of Rome. Elaborate mosaic floors from an Imperial-era villa demonstrated that the luxury dwellings of modern Rome stood on two hundred years of luxury dwellings of ancient Rome.

There is evidence of human occupation at the site going back to the prehistory of Rome, the 8th century B.C. when legend has it Romulus founded the city. The excavation also unearthed a wall of volcanic tufa blocks that may have bene the base of a guard tower built between the 4th and 3rd century B.C. when the Servian Wall was constructed looping around the foot of the Aventine Hill. Just a few steps away on the Viale Aventino is an extremely rare surviving archway from this wall in which a throwing weapon like a ballista or a catapult could be positioned to defend against marauders.

The site seems to have first changed from public defensive structure to private use around the middle of the 2nd century B.C., although the material from this period is too sparse to determine how it was used. Within this large perimeter, the floorplan of a domus emerged with identifiable areas for sleeping and for daytime use, storage areas and open-air gardens. Over the two centuries, six levels of floors were superimposed on each other. The full stratigraphic record was brought to light in one location of the house, and analysis of the six layers found that the home was restructured about every 30 years. Every generation put its stamp on this villa, altering it and refurbishing it to meet new needs and fashions.

The oldest mosaic floor dates to the late 1st century B.C. and features black and white tiles arranged in a hexagonal pattern. The next two chronologically date to the second half of the 1st century A.D. and the beginning of the 2nd. A partial inscription (the black tiles that formed the letters were reused in later renovations) dates to the reign of Trajan (98-117 A.D.) and records three patrons of that particular mosaic pavement, suggesting it may have had a semi-public use at this time, as in for members of an association.

Black-and-white geometric mosaics from the era of Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) were found in good condition, but the real stand-outs are five mosaics dating to the Antonine dynasty (150-175 A.D.). These were the first ones encountered by the finders and they are dazzling in their array of iconographic elements and color accents. One floor has a black-on-white figure eight pattern that has never been seen before. A few painted walls from this phase have also survived.

The Antonine mosaic floors undulate today, a result of centuries of earth movement culminating in structurally damaging subsidence that likely caused the abandonment of the villa in the early 3rd century. In addition to the floors of the domus, archaeologists discovered hundreds of artifacts including lacquered bowl fragments, a hairpin, a key and an amphora used to store garum, the fermented fish gut sauce that Romans put on everything.

The excavation, conservation of the mosaics and walls in situ and the creation of an exhibit environment to allow the public access to the exceptional remains were privately financed by the developers of the complex who are happily using the extreme coolness of their ancient basement in their promotional materials. The Hadrianic and Antonine mosaics are on display, enhanced by a light projection system that fills in some of the blanks in the mosaics and visually recreates lost frescoed walls and furnishings of the domus. They’re calling it an archaeological treasure chest, opened to the public two days a month, then closed back up to protect it (and the luxury penthouse owners).


6th c. B.C. bronze horse harness found in Poland

Sunday, October 11th, 2020

Metal detectorists in north-central Poland have discovered a complete bronze horse bridle that date back 2,500 years. Also buried with the hoard was a bronze axe. This is the first Iron Age horse harness of its kind discovered in Central and Eastern Europe.

Arkadiusz Kurij had scanned a forest near Toruń with fellow WELES Historical and Exploration Group members with no success. He returned to the rendezvous point and suddenly his detector signaled loudly. The group began to dig, but stopped when they found the first bronze pieces. WELES explores in cooperation with the Regional Monuments Protection Office  (WUOZ) in Toruń, so as soon as they realized they had discovered archaeological artifacts, they notified the authorities and carefully reburied the site to cover up evidence of digging should anybody with less noble intent happen upon it.

Archaeologists excavated the find site and recovered a highly decorative harness made of numerous tubular elements linked together with rings and decorated with round shields with central bosses. A total of 156 bronze harness parts made of sheet metal and wire were unearthed. It is complete in every particular, missing only the bit that went in the horse’s mouth. Bits found in Scythian horse burials were made of wood, so that one missing piece may have decomposed.

Microtraces of organic remains on the artifacts indicate the fittings and the axe were wrapped in burdock leaves and placed in a leather bag. The bag was then deliberately buried in the sandy soil of a hill near the bank of the Vistula River. The hoard weighs one kilo (2.2 lbs) in total, which was a lot of metal in the Iron Age. The hoard could have been intended to be melted down and used as raw material.

The design style of the harness is typical of metalwork by the Iron Age Scythian cultures of the Eurasian steppe, perhaps traveling north and west towards the territories of the Lusatian culture. The moved into southern Poland through the Moravian Gate in which is now the Czech Republic during the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (7th-6th century B.C.). The socketed axe found in the cache is of local origin. How it made its way into the harness bag is unknown, but it may suggest encounters between Scythian horsemen and the local population.

The objects will be analyzed, studied and conserved by a multidisciplinary team of researchers coordinated by the Institute of Archeology of Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. The team hopes to be able to narrow down the date when the harness was buried. Conservation and analysis is expected to take at least nine months, after which WUOZ hopes the objects will go on display in a local museum.





October 2020


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