Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Marcus Aurelius head found at Kom Ombo Temple

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

Dashing off a quick one tonight — little more than a picture, truth be told — due to extreme business/tiredness, if you’ll forgive me.

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a bust of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius at the Temple of Kom Ombo, about 600 miles south of Cairo. The team was working on a groundwater reduction project at the temple when they came across the sculpture. The head is made of marble and is very finely carved, depicting the emperor with his characteristic wavy hair and beard. The find is noteworthy because statues of Marcus Aurelius are very rarely seen in Egypt, and this one is a particularly quality example.

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Happy Birthday, Rome, from the Antonine Wall.

Saturday, April 21st, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roman Republic coin collection digitzed

Friday, April 20th, 2018

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

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

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




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

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

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

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



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Unbelievable 3D-printed 1st c. Roman helmet

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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Ancient Peruvians buried with extra limbs

Friday, April 13th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roman tomb found at Bulgarian med school

Saturday, April 7th, 2018

On March 29th, a Roman tomb was discovered on the campus of the Medical University of Plovdiv in Bulgaria. Workers stumbled on the find while doing repairs to the steam system in the courtyard behind the Rector’s office. Archaeologists were immediately called in to excavate the tomb. The University of Plovdid’s Zdravka Korkutova and Medical University of Plovdiv Associate Professor Georgi Tomov found a fully intact tomb in exceptional condition containing inhumed skeletal remains.

The tomb is a single chamber made of brick and mortar covered by a granite block. Within just a few hours’ work, the archaeologists unearthed parts of a skull and lower leg bones.

Prof. Tomov said: “Probably the tomb is from the second to the third century and more than one person was buried there, that is, it is a family tomb. This will become apparent after an anthropological study of what is there has been done. By examining the skeletons, we will get information about the gender and age of the buried, their health, whether they have suffered from illness, and what kind of medical interventions they have had.”

The date estimate is derived from the style of the tomb and its location. In the Roman period, Plovdid, then known as Philipopolis, had four necropolises just outside the city boundaries, as was customary in Roman urban planning. The largest of them was opened in the 1st century A.D. just to the west of the city and as Philipopolis prospered in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the cemetery expanded westward towards the hill of Dzhendem tepe. (Plovdid has seven hills too, btw.) It had been the site of religious shrines since the Bronze Age, and the Romans built the city’s main temple dedicated to Apollo Cendrisseos there, so it was religiously fitting that a necropolis would reach its foothills. The campus of MU-Plovdid is in the shadow of Dzhendem tepe.

The tombs built for people of means during this time of expansion and prosperity are of markedly higher construction quality than the ones before or after. They are made of brick and mortar with plum and flush walls, like the one just discovered behind the Rector’s office. When the city’s fortunes began to decline in the 4th century, the tombs were more patchwork affairs, modest in scale and constructed from recycled building materials scavenged from earlier structures.

The skeletal remains are currently being studied. MU-Plovdid’s rector, Dr. Stefan Kostyanev, behind whose office the tomb was found, hopes the finds can eventually be displayed in yet-to-be-built University museum.

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52 new Nasca lines discovered by drones

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Peruvian archaeologists have discovered more than 50 new ancient geoglyphs in the Palpa province using drone and satellite technology. Known as the Nasca lines after the culture that created some of the largest and most dramatic figures on flat topography so they can only be fully seen from the air, in fact some of the geoglyphs predate the Nasca. The Paracas culture, for example, created elaborate human and animal designs on the sides of cliffs, which makes them visible to people on firm ground, as long as they’re far enough away.

The new geoglyphs add crucial data on the Paracas culture, as well as the mysterious Topará culture, which marked the transition between the Paracas and the Nasca. Centuries before the famous Nasca lines were made, people in the region were experimenting with making massive geoglyphs.

“This means that it is a tradition of over a thousand years that precedes the famous geoglyphs of the Nasca culture, which opens the door to new hypotheses about its function and meaning,” says Peruvian Ministry of Culture archaeologist Johny Isla, the Nasca lines’ chief restorer and protector.

And they’re in need of a most valiant protector. If it’s not truckers driving over the lines, it’s Greenpeace protesters callously treating them like nothing more than a backdrop. The Greenpeace cloud did have a silver lining in that it resulted in a grant from the US government to aid in the conservation of the geoglyphs.

The additional funding was essential to the new discoveries, because Peru’s archaeological sites are very poorly documented — only 5,000 of the estimated 100,000 have been thoroughly recorded on the ground. Many of them aren’t even accessible to ground teams. The recently discovered ones primarily consist of thin, geometric lines which have been hard-worn by the harsh desert environment. Only the powerful oculi of aerial viewing technology could have detected them. (Boosted by the great repository of knowledge of local peoples who had an awareness of where some of the hillside geoglyphs had been even when they were so eroded they were no longer visible to the naked eye.)

Enter the GlobalXplorer project, founded by space archaeologist and 2016 TED Prize recipient Sarah Parcak to marshal the power of crowdsourcing to analyze satellite images for signs of archaeological remains and interference from looters. Parcak and the GlobalXplorer volunteers scoured satellite views of Peru and flagged potential sites of interests. Their data was relayed to Peruvian archaeologists Johnny Isla and Luis Jaime Castillo Butters who, backed by financial support from the National Geographic Society, visited those locations on the ground.

There was little evidence of looters interfering with the sides pinpointed by GlobalXplorer, but there was plenty of evidence of illegal encroachment from abusive, unauthorized gold mining. It was drone footage that broke it all wide open.

How could so many geoglyphs hide in plain sight? Over time, many of the lines and figures have been reduced to faint depressions in the soil, visible only on 3-D scans of the terrain captured by the eagle-eye perspective provided by drones. And despite satellites’ awe-inspiring surveillance power, they can’t see everything.

The most powerful satellite that GlobalXplorer uses can see a foot-wide object from 383 miles above Earth’s surface. That’s the equivalent of seeing a single human hair from more than 650 feet away. But the lines that trace the newfound geoglyphs are mere inches across—too fine to spot from space.

Low-flying drones operating at altitudes of 200 feet or less, in contrast, can spot objects less than a half-inch wide. “The [drone camera] resolution is incredibly high,” says Castillo.

He speaks truth. National Geographic broke the story and has some magnificent aerial video of the lines, both the newly discovered ones and ones that haven’t been recorded before from above, taken by the drones.

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FBI identifies Middle Kingdom mummy head

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018

More than a century after its discovery and four millennia after it was entombed, the head of a Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 B.C.) mummy has been identified by FBI forensic specialists using DNA analysis. Even with all the advances in the retrieval of archaeological DNA over the past decade, the odds of success were slim because this poor head has been through the wringer. First, it was entombed in the necropolis of Deir el-Bersha on the east bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt where the blazing heat of the Eastern Desert destroys DNA in short order.

Then it was abused in the most callous fashion by looters who broke into the tomb in antiquity. After plundering the tomb of its precious metals, the thieves tossed aside a mummified body which ended up in two pieces — the torso, sans limbs, and the head. They tried to set the limestone chamber on fire to obscure the evidence of their crime, but thankfully failed and what was left of the human remains, not to mention some exceptional wood artifacts, survived.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years later, the tomb’s denizens had another close call, this time at the hand of archaeologists. George Reisner and Handford Lyman Story discovered the burial shaft of what they would name Tomb 10A under some boulders in 1915. The shaft was 30 feet long and space very tight, so Reisner and Story dynamited their way in.

Recklessly explosive entry notwithstanding, the team found beautiful and rare painted wooden coffins, figurines and pottery that had been roughly piled up and tossed around by the ancient looters. Four coffins, canes and dozens of models depicting daily life on the estate of a high official including 58 boats, artisan workshops and a religious procession featuring a male priest leading female bearers of offerings. It was the largest assemblage of Middle Kingdom funerary artifacts ever discovered.

They also found a mummified head on top of one of those coffins and the disarticulated torso in a corner. The wood objects and the head were sent to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which had co-sponsored the dig, in 1921. They had their next brush with destruction on the trip across the Atlantic when the ship caught fire. The crew managed to control the flames and the contents of the tomb made it through with minimal water damage.

At the time, there wasn’t a great deal of interest in these types of materials, so most of them were put in storage. Only the religious procession and the finest painted of the coffins were put on display. Finally in 2009 the full assemblage was rescued from obscurity and displayed in an exhibition dedicated to the finds: The Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC.

The mummified head was one of the stand-out items. Its serene visage, head wrap with painted on eyebrows and curly hair visible through the linen bandages made a striking impression, as did the fact that nobody knew for sure who the head had belonged to in life. Inscriptions had identified the tomb as that of the Great Overlord of the Hare (15th) Nome, Djehutihotep, and his wife, but it wasn’t clear whether the head was male or female. Expert opinions differed and even as recently as 2009 it was thought to be impossible to retrieve viable, uncontaminated DNA from an Egyptian mummy.

The MFA had doctors at Massachusetts General extract a molar from the head in the hope it might contain a precious clean sample protected by the tooth’s enamel. Several teams of scientists tried to recover DNA from the tooth since the 2009 extraction, but to no avail. In 2016, the FBI’s forensic specialists were enlisted.

The F.B.I. had never before worked on a specimen so old. If its scientists could extract genetic material from the 4,000-year-old mummy, they would add a powerful DNA collecting technique to their forensics arsenal and also unlock a new way of deciphering Egypt’s ancient past.

“I honestly didn’t expect it to work because at the time there was this belief that it was not possible to get DNA from ancient Egyptian remains,” said Odile Loreille a forensic scientist at the F.B.I. But in the journal Genes in March, Dr. Loreille and her colleagues reported that they had retrieved ancient DNA from the head. And after more than a century of uncertainty, the mystery of the mummy’s identity had been laid to rest. […]

In the F.B.I.’s clean lab, Dr. Loreille drilled into the tooth’s core and collected a tiny bit of powder. She then dissolved the tooth dust to make a DNA library that allowed her to amplify the amount of DNA she was working with, like a copy machine, and bring it up to detectable levels.

To determine whether what she had extracted was ancient DNA or contamination from modern people, she analyzed how damaged the sample was. It showed signs of heavy damage, confirmation that she was studying the mummy’s genetic material.

She plugged her data into computer software that analyzed the ratio of chromosomes in the sample. “When you have a female you have more reads on X. When you have a male you have X and Y,” she said.

The program spit out “male.”

And thus at long last, the Great Overlord Djehutynakht reclaimed his head.

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Spanish tech used in Switzerland to prove Roman shaft was a fridge

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

The archaeological site of Augusta Raurica outside Basel, Switzerland, has been excavated continuously for decades. It is the oldest known Roman colony on the Rhine but was never overbuilt after it was permanently disabled by earthquakes and barbarian raids in the 3rd century. Because of this, the site’s remains are extensive and in an excellent state of preservation. Today Augusta Raurica is by far the best preserved Roman city north of the Alps.

In 2013, a dig unearthed a number of stone-walled shafts. Archaeologists suspected they may have been used for cold storage. Romans would pack the space with snow and ice in the winter and add straw for insulation. Supplies stashed in the shaft could then be kept cool even when the sun was hot.

Peter-Andrew Schwarz from the University of Basel has experimented twice trying to get the refrigerator effect to work. The first time the team packed the shaft with snow, shoveling it all in in one fell swoop. This method did not work. The temperature inside the structure never even reached freezing during the winter.

The second attempt packed snow and ice into the shaft gradually, fitting ice blocks into gaps. This half-worked. The pit got cold and stayed cold until June.

Now, however, researchers plan to use methods developed by the so-called ‘nevaters’ or ice-makers on the Spanish island of Majorca. This will see Schwarz and his team placing 20–30-centimetre-thick layers of snow into the shaft. These individual layers will then be compacted down with a straw cover placed on top of each one.

“With this method, people in Majorca could keep food cool in summer before the arrival of electric fridges,” Schwarz told regional daily Basler Zeitung in 2017.

The experiment is taking place even as you read and the site is open to the public, as is its wont. Visitors will have the chance to see the pits while archaeologists work to figure out if they were used for refrigeration. The tests end on Friday.

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Lechaion dig unearths coin hoard

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed a hoard of 119 ancient coins buried under a collapsed building in Lechaion, ancient Corinth’s main harbor. The coins were excavated during the 2016 and 2017 dig seasons and appear to have been buried in a very shallow hole. They were found just 12-16 inches under the modern surface.

The coins, many of which are made of bronze, were discovered in excavations carried out in 2016 and 2017; some of the coins still need to be cleaned. No human remains were found with the coins, archaeologists said.

The collapsed building is located beside the remains of what may be a work yard, which has the remains of iron slag, unworked iron, cooked animal bone and a concrete basin, archaeologists found.

The earliest coin in the hoard dates to shortly after the death of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (who reigned from A.D. 306-337), while the most recent two coins in the stash date to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I (who reigned from A.D. 491-518), said Michael Ierardi, a professor of classics at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, who is studying the hoard. Based on their weight and size, the coins likely date to sometime between A.D. 491 and 498, before Anastasius I reformed the Byzantine Empire’s coinage system, Ierardi said.

There has been some discussion on the “mystery” of why whoever buried the cash didn’t come back for it, but it doesn’t seem all that mysterious to me. Lechaion was destroyed by an earthquake in the late 6th century A.D., and there were many earlier seismic episodes of destructive force. I wouldn’t be surprised if that roof collapse was the result of an earthquake that either claimed the hoarder’s life or forced him out of town.


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