Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Another Samnite tomb, skeletons, gold coins found in Pompeii

Sunday, June 26th, 2016

Last year, the international and interdisciplinary archaeological team from the Jean Bérard Center of Naples excavating the Porta Ercolano are outside Pompeii’s northwest gate made headlines when they discovered a rare intact 4th century B.C. Samnite tomb. Now the same team has found another Samnite tomb from the same period, plus the skeletal remains of four people fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius and a few of the treasures they carried with them.

As is traditional with Roman cities, areas outside the walls were used for tombs and for artisanal workshop, in this case primarily pottery shops, because they’d make a lot of noise, produce smoke, noxious odors, etc. that would be a nuisance in the densely populated city center. In fact, the team has been excavating this area for five years to study the pottery production facilities and the role of crafts in the Pompeiian economy. They didn’t really think they’d find anything new in this particular spot because it had already been excavated in the 19th century by the great Giuseppe Fiorelli, Pompeii’s groundbreaking director of works who devised the plaster cast system to capture the last moments of Vesuvius’ victims.

Soon after the dig season began on May 16th, the team was delighted to find, in keeping with their mission, the remains of two shops. One had a vertical pit with a staircase built into the side, a unique design never found before in Pompeii. Archaeologists believe it may have been a furnace used to manufacture bronze objects. The second workshop, closer to the city gate, has a circular well dug into the soil that may have been used to extract construction materials. Archaeologists aren’t certain of its purpose. It was accessible by a spiral staircase carved into the terrain. Research will continue over the next month and other shops nearby will be excavated.

The remains of Vesuvius’ victims were found in the back room of one of the shops. The four appear to be young people, one of them a teenage girl, who made it outside the city gate but must have been compelled to stop and seek shelter, probably in the futile attempt to dodge the pyroclastic flow ringing the death knell for the city. The remains were jumbled up against the wall, the result of looters known as fossores who tunneled through the ash to scavenge any valuables people had taken with them when they tried to outrun the volcano. The exact date of this incursion is hard to establish; sometime between the eruption of 79 A.D. and the official excavations of the 19th century.

The fossores didn’t get everything, though. Three gold coins and a gold foil pendant in the shape of a flower were found amidst the bones. The coins are aurei of the emperor Vespasian dating to 74, 77/78 A.D. There were also some undamaged ceramics: a bowl, three small pitchers, two lids of cooking vessels charred from their quotidian use, not the eruption, and an elegant white urceus, a tall, slender, one-handled vessel used to contain garum, the fermented salted, sun-cured fish intestine sauce that Romans used on everything.

Dating to the 4th century B.C., the Samnite tomb is lined with limestone slabs and contains the remains of an adult male with grave goods quite different from those found in the tomb of a woman last year. There are six vases — among them an oinochoe, a lekythos, a kylix, a skyphos and a globular aryballos with a flat bottom — all black painted without any decoration painted over it, unlike last year’s tomb. The tomb is not fully excavated yet, but archaeologists are on the look-out for remains of a belt buckle and/or weapons that have been found before in the graves of Samnite men.

From the late 5th century, early 4th century B.C., a period of great transition when the Samnite peoples, originally located in the Apennines, spread into the territories of other Italic tribes and Greek colonies finally reaching the Mediterranean. Before the eruption of Vesuvius, Pompeii was less than a third of a mile from the coast, so the Samnite presence there is an important benchmark of the last stages of its expansion. Very little archaeological material has been found from this period, so all discoveries take on even greater significance.

Long head of Silla woman reconstructed from skull fragments

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

In late 2013, archaeologists excavating in advance of a driveway construction project near Gyeongju, a town in southeastern Korea that was the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom, unearthed human skeletal remains. Found in a mokgwakmyo, a traditional wooden coffin, in a marshy area, the skeleton was complete and relatively well-preserved, albeit fragmented in places. Grave goods, including pottery and a wooden comb, were found inside the coffin that identify it as a Silla-era burial.

The Silla Kingdom started as a small city-state in 57 B.C. and ruled an increasingly large part of the Korean Peninsula until 935 A.D. Its thousand-year duration is one of the longest in the historical record, and two of its ruling dynasties — the Parks and the Kims — transcended the kingdom to become the most common family names in Korea today.

Despite the Silla Kingdom’s long life and enormous influence on the history and modern culture of Korea, researchers have had few opportunities to study Silla bones at all, and never with multiple analytical technologies. Intact human remains from the Silla period are rare because Korea’s acidic soil and the cycles of hot/wet, cold/dry weather accelerate the decomposition of soft tissue and bone alike. A 4th-6th century grave discovered in 2009 contained unprecedented complete sets of human and horse armor, for example, but not a single human remain. The wooden coffin survived, as did a box with assorted grave goods. The bones had disintegrated. The discovery of a complete skeleton in 2013 gave scientists the chance to carry out anthropological analysis, extract mitochondrial DNA, run stable isotope tests and craniofacial analyses that led to a full facial reconstruction.

The person deceased was a woman between 35 and 39 years of age at time of death. The length of the femur indicated she was around 155 cm (five feet) tall. The mitrochondrial DNA results placed her haplogroup F1b1a, a haplogroup typical of East Asia but not the dominant group in living Koreans today. Stable isotope analysis found that her diet consisted mainly of foods in the C3 category (wheat, rice and potatoes) and was likely vegetarian.

Her skull was found broken in dozens of pieces. In order to help determine her gender and to create a facial reconstruction, archaeologists cleaned the fragments and dried them. Each piece was scanned and imported into 3D modelling software to figure out how the pieces fit together. Once the model was complete, the team then puzzled together the actual skull from the fragments.

Her skull was unusually long and narrow. This kind of head shape often seen in cases of intentional cranial deformation. It appears to be natural in her case. Intentionally deformed crania are flatter in the front and the bones of the side grow to compensate from the pressure of the deforming agent (usually a piece wood or tight bindings applied to infants when their skulls are still soft).

In the craniometric analysis, the major cranial indices were compared with the corresponding data derived from the subjects of modern Korean adults. The results showed that the skull has longer, narrower and lower cranium with a narrower facial bone and orbits than those from the modern Korean adults groups. The nasal aperture demonstrated an average width in the nasal index. In terms of appearance, it was assumed that the individual had horizontally long & vertically short head with inclined forehead from lateral view and narrower face from frontal view.

This dolichocephalic or long-headedness trait is rare in the population of Korea today. Koreans are more often brachycephalic, defined as the width of their skull being at least 80% of the length.

Here is the complete craniofacial reconstruction:

You can read the full study published in the journal PLOS ONE here.

Elusive 4,000-year-old petrographs found in Russia

Monday, June 20th, 2016

Archaeologists have finally tracked down prehistoric petrographs that were rumored to exist in a remote area of southeastern Russia. Locals have long whispered of ancient rock art in the craggy mountains of the Shilka River basin in the Transbaikal region, but nobody knew the exact location. Local legend has it that the petrographs were first discovered by a hunter many a years ago. He left his hometown and was never heard from again. More recently, a teacher from a village on the Shilka River was reputed to have taken her students to see the rock art in the 1990s. She died before archaeologists began looking.

In 2013, a team of archaeologists from Novosibirsk State University and the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography decided to explore the mountainous region in search of the petrographs. Local man Evgeny Karelin served as a guide to the area even though he didn’t know where the rock art was either. Then the archaeologists, led by associate professor Sergey Alkin, searched until they found the petrographs on a craggy rock face overlooking the Largi River at the end of summer.

It was truly a last-minute find. The field season was coming to a rapid close so the archaeologists only had one hour to study the rock art. They returned the next year and again in 2015, thoroughly examining and documenting the petrographs. They made a complete copy of all the art work and took samples of the pigment.

Now that they’ve found it, archaeologists are not disappointed. It’s quite a large piece with multiple figures painted on the rocky surface with red and ochre pigments. The condition is excellent, thanks in part to its remote location keeping people from messing with it. Other petrographs found in the area are much smaller and more worn. There are more than 20 elements, most of them human figures, plus an animal with hoofs, a tree, what may be birds and geometric shapes.

“Of course, interpretation of the images is disputable. Some elements can be explained only through archaeological and ethnographic analogues. Even the human figures can be interpreted as hunters, spirits or somebody else. For instance, one figure has a circle nearby, which should be a solar sign. With a cross inside, this circle is likely to represent a shaman’s drum, which is typical for many Siberian cultures. Thus, we may assume that this figure shows a shaman with a drum.”

[Sergey Alkin] is quite sure about distinguishing a hoofed animal, presumably a bull. Other distinct elements show some birds. Bird images are typical for other known petrographs in Transbaikalia. An important part of the Largi petrograph is numerous points and lines. “Such points can be interpreted as a symbol of counting with the painter fixing the number of some objects (say, cattle). As for the vertical lines above a horizontal one, this could be a long boat with people sitting in it. Archaeologists often identify similar images from other regions in such a way; however, in Eastern Transbaikalia it is the only known image of this type,” says the scientist.

While other petrographs in the region often are accompanied by ledges underneath the drawings that bear artifacts — tools, arrowheads — which archaeologists believe were part of a ritual sacrifice, there is no ledge here, and no evidence of religious activity. A nearby site at the mouth of the Largi river which was used by hunters and fisherman in the Bronze Age has a large number of pottery fragments and ceramic vessels. The team hopes to do more comparative studies to see if there may be a link between the new find at the site at the mouth of the river.

Comparison with other rock art in the Eastern Transbaikal and Yakutia regions indicates the petrographs were made about 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. Now the team will study samples and the detailed copy to learn more about the imagery and arrangement of the figures. They deliberately kept the discovery to themselves to ensure they had all the time they needed to make the copy and to keep the site free of interference from tourists and other researchers. They won’t be releasing the exact location of find site to the public anytime soon and it’s enough of a challenge to get there that archaeologists think the rock art will remain pristine.

Restored 6th c. purple gospels return home

Friday, June 17th, 2016

The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis is a 6th century Greek manuscript written in uncial script (upper case script with rounded letters in use from the 4th-8th centuries) that contains the gospel of Matthew, most of the gospel of Mark (verses 14-20 of chapter 16 are missing) and the Epistula ad Carpianum (a letter from Eusebius of Caesarea, the “Father of Church History,” to Carpianus on the concordance of the four gospels). Because of the letter and an illumination of all four evangelists, scholars believe the 188-page codex was originally more than double the size and included all four gospels. It’s not certain where it was written. Comparisons with other manuscripts suggest Antioch is a possibility, as is Byzantium.

It is one of several surviving manuscripts of the New Testament known as the Purple Uncials or Purple Codices after their reddish or purple pages. The vellum was dyed the royal color and the text written in silver and gold ink. St. Jerome, author of the Vulgate, the first comprehensive translation of most of the Bible into Latin, defended himself against charges that he was rejecting the authority of the Greek writers of the Septuagint in his translation by dismissing the purple codices as pretty but inaccurate.

“Let whoever will to keep the old books, either written on purple skins with gold and silver, or in uncial letters, as they commonly say, loads of writing rather than books, while they leave to me and mine to have poor little leaves and not such beautiful books as correct ones.”

For them to have been held up as examples of old-fashioned scholarship, the purple Bibles must have been widespread in Christian theological circles when Jerome wrote that in 394 A.D.

Most of the surviving Codices Purpurei date to the 6th century, but there are examples as early as the 4th or 5th century (Codex Vercellensis Evangeliorum,
Codex Veronensis, Codex Palatinus) and as late as the 9th century (Minuscule 565, Minuscule 1143). There are Purple Codices written in Greek and Latin, and one in Gothic (Codex Argenteus). They were created in numerous place within the Roman’s former sphere of influence, from Syria to Anglo-Saxon England to Byzantine Greece.

The Rossano Codex is particularly notable for its 14 illuminations depicting the life and ministry of Jesus. It’s one of the earliest surviving illuminated gospels and contains two of the first and most significant representations of Pontius Pilate. He’s depicted as a white-haired judge seated on a curule chair, a symbol of Roman political power because only magistrates were allowed to sit on them. Only one other purpureous codex from the 6th century, the Vienna Genesis, is illuminated, and it’s a fragment of the Septuagint, specifically the Book of Genesis, so no Jesus or Pilate. Images include the above-mentioned four evangelists, Lazarus being raised from the dead, the entry into Jerusalem, the parable of the ten virgins, the Last Supper (in which Jesus and Peter recline to dine) and washing of the feet, Jesus healing the blind man, the Good Samaritan, the suicide of Judas and the Pilate scenes.

It was first brought to light by poet, literary critic and journalist Cesare Malpica in 1846, but the first to track it down to the sacristy of the cathedral of Rossano, Calabria, in southern Italy, and study it with scientific rigour were German theologians Adolf von Harnack and Oscar von Gebhardt published it internationally to great scholarly acclaim in 1879.

The manuscript has suffered many centuries of dismemberment, arduous travel, fire and a botched restoration in 1919 which applied hot jelly to the illuminated vellum leaves causing them to turn transparent. Alarmed by its deteriorating condition, the Rossano archdiocese enlisted the aid of Rome’s Central Institute for Restoration and Conservation of Archival and Library Heritage (ICRCPAL). From 2012 until 2015, ICRCPAL conservators worked with chemists, physicists, biologists and the latest technology to analyze and repair the Codex. There’s a nice selection of photos of the Codex and its restoration on the project website. They’re small, sadly.

In 2015 was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register of documentary heritage. Now that the restoration is complete, the Codex will return to the Diocesan Museum where it is the featured exhibit. Three newly renovated galleries are dedicated to the manuscript: one to display the Codex itself, one in which a documentary film about the work is played, one dedicated to the restoration. A new climate-controlled, continuously monitored display case will house the fragile document. The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis goes back on display on July 2nd.

Long-lost Neolithic figurine found in Orkney museum

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

I don’t know why stories sometimes form little geographical clusters, but it seems to happen fairly regularly. Last month it was Denmark and now it’s Scotland. Today’s Scottish report comes to us from the Stromness Museum which has rediscovered a highly significant Neolithic figurine that was undocumented and unrecognized its collection for almost a century.

It’s an anthropomorphic figurine 9.5cm (3.7 inches) high and 7.5cm (3 inches) wide carved out of whale bone. Holes were carved to indicate eyes, a mouth and a navel. There are also holes carved through the sides of the head and body, possibly used to hang it as a pendant. The figurine was discovered in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, Orkney, in the 1860s. Skara Brae is the most complete Neolithic village in Europe with eight dwellings clustered together. was found in the stone bed compartment of Skara Brae’s House 3, a structure that stratigraphically and from radiocarbon testing of the context to between 2900 and 2400 B.C., so the figurine is about 5,000 or 4,500 years old. It is one of only a handful of prehistoric representations of humans discovered in Britain. It was the first one found and the only one made of whale bone.

The figurine was found by William Watt, Laird of Skaill House and owner of the property, who had discovered the site in 1850 when a storm exposed stone walls and a midden previously hidden under drift sand. Watt excavated the entire site with occasional visits from other amateur archaeologists James Farrer and George Petrie. The only existing documentation of the figurine is in Petrie’s 1867 report (pdf) in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland on the Skara Brae settlement and its artifacts. He described it as a “small piece of Whalebone, cut as if intended for an idol or ‘Fetish.’” Petrie also made a sketch of it in his notebook.

The historical significance of the piece wasn’t recognized at the time. The artifact was assumed to be in the private museum Watt created at Skaill House, but there was no record of it. When the collection was broken up in the 1930s and distributed to various museums including the Stromness Museum, the figurine appeared in none of the inventories. It was believed lost forever.

The figurine was rediscovered by Dr. David Clarke who was going through Stromness Museum’s Skaill House artifacts as part of a research project on Skara Brae. None of the Skaill pieces included a provenance, so Dr. Clarke had to look through the entire collection for anything that might have come from Skara Brae. When he saw that little face peering out of a bed of tissue in the last box of the day, he immediately recognized it from Petrie’s illustration.

Additional research by Clarke and museum experts confirmed the identification and its original find spot. The figurine has been given a new name, Skara Brae Buddo (“buddo” is the Orcadian word for “friend”), and is now on display in the Stromness Museum’s new Rediscovered exhibition along with other artifacts from Skara Brae that have never been on display before.

You can explore Skara Brae Buddo’s amiable mien in this 3D model created by Dr. Hugo Anderson-Whymark.

Skara Brae 'Buddo' Figurine, Orkney
by Stromness Museum
on Sketchfab

Pierced Roman sling-bullets whistled when hurled

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

Archaeologists studying Roman artillery at the ancient Roman battle site of Burnswark Hill in Dumfriesshire, southwest Scotland, have discovered that a type of sling-bullet that whistled when thrown. They believe this was a deliberate design intended to instill fear in enemy troops under assault.

Burnswark Hill is an Iron Age hillfort embraced by two Roman camps, one of the north slop, one of the south. The camps were first believed to be siege camps built to assault the fort, but in the 1960s some archaeologists postulated they might instead be training camps. There are references in ancient sources to the assiduous Roman training procedures, but evidence of them in the archaeological record is almost impossible to pinpoint. Training exercises could be the reason for the large number of Roman projectiles — 130 lead sling-bullets, 11 ballista shots, nine iron arrowheads — found on Burnswark Hill in earlier excavations.

Initial research found that the bullets, cast from lead and thrown with a sling apparatus, came in two main varieties: type I, larger and lemon-shaped, and type II, smaller and acorn-shaped. When Dr. John Reid of the Trimontium Trust secured a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to survey and dig the site, his team found a third type: a small oblong in which a hole had been drilled on one side. The type III bullets weigh 20 grams (type I goes up to 60 grams) and the holes are just .5 mm in diameter. They are all the same standard size.

Drilling holes in cast lead is time and labour-intensive for a projectile that is going to be thrown and almost certainly lost. It also lightens the ball which means it will cause less damage in a direct hit. Reid at first considered whether the holes might have been used to deliver poison, a form of early chemical warfare, but his brother had a better idea.

Reid’s brother, a keen fisherman, offered some insight into their possible purpose when he suggested the bullets were designed to make noise in flight.

“I said, ‘Don’t be stupid; you’ve no idea what you’re talking about. You’re not an archaeologist,’” Reid joked. “And he said, ‘No, but I’m a fisherman, and when I cast my line with lead weights that have got holes in them like that, they whistle.’”

“Suddenly, a light bulb came on in my head — that’s what they’re about. They’re for making a noise,” Reid said.

Experiments with replica bullets and slings confirmed that Reid’s brother was onto something. They were useless for holding poison. The hole was tiny and there was no guarantee the small, ballistically inferior bullets would even penetrate the skin. While flying towards their targets, however, the projectiles did make a whistling or high-pitched buzzing noise like an irate bee. The replica experiments also confirmed that the bullets could be successfully thrown in small clusters of three or four for a grapeshot effect.

The point of the sound was to intimidate and make the enemy crouch down or dodge around in the attempt to avoid the strike. If you throw a projectile and it hits, you take out a guy, but if you throw a projectile and it makes a sound as it approaches, anyone in the line of fire is going to duck or dodge reflexively. In a full-on assault, the missile storm would generate a huge amount of noise as hundreds, even thousands of bullets whistled toward the enemy lines.

It total, the Burnswark Project found 700 sling-bullets, more than have been found on any other Roman battlefield in Europe. The projectiles ranged over a full half kilometer (third of a mile) across the battle front. The type III bullets are unique. They have been found on no other Roman battlefields. Examples of pierced sling-bullets have been found on Greek battlefields from the second and third centuries B.C., but they were ceramic, not cast from lead.

The Burnswark Project findings do not support the training camp theory. That high of an expenditure in effort and materiel would be wasteful in training. Reid believes the fort on Burnswark Hill was targeted by a sustained Roman attack probably during the reign of Antoninus Pius who went north of Hadrian’s famous border wall in an attempt to conquer Scotland. He did gain some ground — see the Antonine Wall — but Roman legions retreated to Hadrian’s Wall in less than a decade.

Dr. Reid’s full article on the Burnswark project, “Bullets, Ballistas, and Burnswark,” is available in the print edition of Current Archaeology. There’s a tantalizing exerpt of the beginning of the article on the magazine’s website. There’s also a cool drone flyover video of Burnswark Hill with Roman fortlet and camps labeled. There are sheep on the Roman north camp now and I don’t think they don’t like the drone much.

Here’s a recording of the sounds the replica type III bullets made when thrown with a replica sling. The thwack-pew combination is pretty badass. It would surely have been scary hurtling at you or whizzing past you, downright terrifying when multiplied by hundreds.

Antikythera Mechanism was an astronomy text

Sunday, June 12th, 2016

It’s been 115 years since sponge divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera recovered a bronze gear device that we now know as the first analog computer, and researchers are still working on solving the mysteries of the Antikythera Mechanism. The mechanism has been at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens since its discovery. For the first couple of years, nobody had any idea what a unique treasure it was. Museum staff focused on the more showy objects from the shipwreck — the divers had raised 36 marble statues, many pieces of bronze statues, jewelry, glassware, lamps and amphorae from the site — and paid little attention to the corroded lump of bronze in storage. In 1902, an archaeologist noticed there was a gear in that lump, and there were words on that gear. The lump broke up as corrosion loosened its grip, eventually splitting up into 87 fragments.

Launched in 2005, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) brings together an international team of researchers and the latest technology to thoroughly reexamine the Antikythera Mechanism in the hopes of shedding new light on how it worked, what it was used for, who made it and a panoply of other questions raised by the remains of the complex device. The first research published in the 1970s dated the mechanism to around 80 B.C., but the AMRP has confirmed a later date, between 150 and 100 B.C., based on the form of the lettering.

The first inscriptions read from the mechanism in 2,000 years were “Venus” and “sun ray.” Within months another 600 characters were deciphered and published. The advances slowed down after that, with 923 characters deciphered into the 1970s. Using 3D CT scanning, surface imaging and high resolution photography, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) was able to more than double the number of characters deciphered on the device. Their first publication in 2006 brought the total up to 2,160. The most recent data, presented on Thursday, June 9th, at the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, brings that number up to 3,400 characters. There are 14,000 characters discovered this far on the device — even the smallest fragments have proved an important source of inscriptions — so there’s still plenty of deciphering left to do.

By examining the structure of the gears, the numbers of teeth, how they interact with each other, and the inscriptions, the AMRP confirmed that the device was an incredibly detailed astronomical calendar that could predict eclipses, calculate the dates of the Olympics, the positions of the sun, moon and planets in the solar system and more. There is nothing else like it known from antiquity, and no other mechanical device would even come close to its complexity until the Middle Ages.

The latest research suggests that this mechanism wasn’t used by astronomers in their daily work, however.

“It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos,” Jones said. “It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment.”

“I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher’s instructional device.”

The letters — some just 1.2 millimeters (1/20 of an inch) tall — were engraved on the inside covers and visible front and back sections of the mechanism, which originally had the rough dimensions of an office box-file, was encased in wood and operated with a hand-crank.

There is so much more to be learned about this precious device, and hopefully there will be new pieces of the puzzle discovered. The Return to Antikythera project, which in October of 2012 began exploring the shipwreck site for the first time since Jacques Cousteau’s two-day 1976 survey, proceeds apace. Artifacts like pottery, sculptures, a huge anchor and a bronze spear two meters long have been recovered from the shipwreck. Fingers crossed they’ll find more of the Antikythera Mechanism too. The newly deciphered texts have given researchers a much better idea of what parts are still missing, so marine archaeologists have a precise idea of what to look for now. The new diving season began in late May.

This video, produced four years ago for the Antikythera Shipwreck exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, gives an overview of the wreck and its many inestimable treasures.

Also, I love this picture so much I had to feature it. It’s a marble statue of a wrestler that was half stuck in the sand and mud of the sea floor and half exposed to the water. One guess which side is which.

Satellites, drones find huge new structure at Petra

Friday, June 10th, 2016

Archaeologists using high-resolution satellite imagery and drone photography have discovered a massive structure in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as the Rose City after the red sandstone of the rock cliffs its most famous buildings were cut into, was built by the Nabateans beginning in the 2nd century BC and prospered as a trade hub linking East and West. It was abandoned in the 7th century and rediscovered by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt in 1812. Since then, it has been extensively explored. Finding a previously unknown structure of monumental dimensions is therefore unexpected, to say the least, especially half a mile south of the main city center.

Archaeologist Christopher Tuttle, who has worked at Petra for nigh on 20 years, collaborated with everyone’s favorite (only?) space archaeologist Sarah Parcak, who scanned the satellite imagery for spots of interest. She saw a large rectangular shape with a smaller rectangle inside it at a site that Tuttle was somewhat familiar with, but the glimpse he’d seen of it looked like there were just a few crumbling terrace walls of a type widely seen all over the city. Tuttle then took to the field to discover if there was anything of note at the site. Aerial drone photography confirmed the outlines of an ancient structure worth exploring further, and then Tuttle took to the field to examine the site with his own eyes.

He realized that it wasn’t busted old terrace walls but rather the remains of a massive previously unknown building. Some pottery found there dates back to 150 BC, which may indicate the platform was built in the early days of Petra’s founding.

The newly revealed structure consists of a 184-by-161-foot (about 56-by-49-meter) platform that encloses a slightly smaller platform originally paved with flagstones. The east side of the interior platform had been lined with a row of columns that once crowned a monumental staircase.

A small 28-by-28-foot (8.5-by-8.5-meter) building was centered north-south atop the interior platform and opened to the east, facing the staircase.

This enormous open platform, topped with a relatively small building and approached by a monumental facade, has no known parallels to any other structure in Petra. It most likely had a public, ceremonial function, which may make it the second largest elevated, dedicated display area yet known in Petra after the Monastery.

Most of the large public monuments, including the Monastery (which is actually a temple), were built between the late 1st century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D., so if the pottery dates pan out, the platform could be the oldest structure in Petra of monumental scale. It’s not clear how the Nabateans used these shrines as they left no written records and few hints carved in the stone since their religious monuments eschewed icons for the most part, or used portable figures that are long gone.

There are no current plans to excavate the site. Tuttle and Parcak have co-authored a study on the find published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. It can be read here if you have a JSTOR login or nine bucks to spare.

You can take a virtual walk through the glories of Petra with Google Street View. Also, PBS’ always excellent NOVA had a fascinating episode last year on how the great buildings and elaborate water systems of Petra were constructed. It’s jaw-dropping at times. The Nabateans were genius engineers, truly.

First ancient oracle found in Athens

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered the first ancient oracle of Apollo in Athens. Others have been found elsewhere in Greece, most famously the Oracle of Delphi, but this one is the only discovered in Athens. It’s in Kerameikos — the old potters’ quarter (hence the name) — northwest of the Acropolis in downtown Athens. It’s the site of a necropolis used over different periods known today as the Street of the Tombs for the funerary moments and stelae that line the road to Eleusis where the mysteries were performed.

Just south of the burial ground is a sanctuary discovered by Kyriakos Mylonas, a pioneer of scientific archaeology in Greece, in 1890. Myolnas unearthed a marble omphalos stone set in a rectangular enclosure between the altar and a triangular statue base in a cult niche. The omphalus, meaning navel, symbolized the center of the world. It was also believed to enable direct communication with the gods. The omphalos stone at the Oracle of Delphi was hollow and is believed to have been part of the ritual reading the oracular gases that came up through it. Because Hecate was frequently depicted as having three forms, Myolnas thought the base once held a statue of Hecate and that the sanctuary was dedicated to her, but Artemis was also sometimes depicted in triplicate, and several inscriptions and other artifacts were later found on the site indicating it was a sanctuary of Artemis Soteira, meaning Artemis the Saviour.

In 2012 during some cleaning work on the site, the German Archaeological Institute found that the omphalos was mounted on a marble slab that covered an opening. Last year, the omphalos was raised with a crane to reveal what it had been concealing for thousands of years: a circular well nine meters (30 feet) deep constructed out of semi-cylindrical clay tiles engraved with more than 20 inscriptions of the phrase “ΕΛΘΕ ΜΟΙ Ω ΠΑΙΑΝ ΦΕΡΩΝ ΤΟ ΜΑΝΤEΙΟΝ ΑΛΗΘΕΣ,” which translates to “Come to me, O Paean, and bring with you the true oracle.” Paean was an epithet of Apollo, son of Zeus and brother of Artemis. The repeated phrase was a prayer, an invocation to the deity that he reveal faithful and accurate answers to believers’ questions.

The shaft is only about 65 cm in diameter (just over two feet) which makes it a very tight fit for archaeologists to explore. Still, researchers were lowered in cautiously by crane. The style of the inscriptions place them in the Roman period, probably the third century, but the well is likely to have been in place much earlier.

Though the powers of the oracle at Delphi and others were famously plied by the ancient Greeks, this is the first ancient oracular edifice to Apollo to have been found in Athens itself, Dr. Jutta Stroszeck, director of the Kerameikos excavation on behalf of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens, told Haaretz. The well would have been used for hydromancy, a method of divination by means of water.
The ancients routinely sought oracular guidance not only on the future, for simple everyday matters, such as finding/keeping a lover, ahead of a journey, after falling ill, and so forth – or applying for asylum in the sanctuary.

This find is also significant because it confirms that the omphalos is in its original location. It is the only one in Greece to bear that distinction. The one in Delphi was moved over the years and is now in an unrelated location inside the sanctuary.

A wooden lid with a waterproof cover has been placed over the oracle well for its protection. The plan is to move some of the marble pieces, including the omphalos, to the Kerameikos museum. A replica will be placed in the sanctuary so it can take the brunt of the elements while the original is spared.

6,000-year-old massacre found in Neolithic silo

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventative Archaeology (INRAP) have unearthed the skeletal remains of a Neolithic massacre in a silo in Achenheim, Alsace, northeastern France. The silo is pit number 124 of more than 300 used to store grain and other food staples unearthed inside a large Neolithic compound surrounded by a V-sectioned ditch with defensive bastions at the entrances. The silos were only used for food storage temporarily. Once they were emptied, they were used as garbage dumps or graves. The compound dates to between 4400 and 4200 B.C., a turbulent time in Alsace which explains why the settlement needed extensive protective measures.

Silo 124 is one of the larger pits at almost 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) in diameter and it was set apart from the other silos either on the site of a dwelling or in a residential area. Inside the silo archaeologists found the complete skeletons of six people, five adult males and one teenage male between 15 and 19 years of age. The fact that the six complete skeletons were all male indicates this may have been a group of warriors, or at least defenders of the settlement. They were found lying on their back, stomach and sides, sometimes intermingled. The position of the bodies indicates they were dumped in the pit and no further attention was paid to them. They were not buried with the care evinced in other silo graves; these bodies were disposed of, pure and simple.

All six of the skeletons have numerous broken bones. There are fractures on the legs, hands, feet, ribs, collar bones, skulls and mandibles. The fractures were on living bone, and the extent and quantity of the broken bones suggest they were brutally beaten to death with blows from a stone axe. The wounds are too extensive to have been received in combat. This was a methodical punishment inflicted off the battlefield on helpless individuals.

The violence wasn’t just perpetrated on the living bodies, but on their corpses as well. Post-mortem wounds were also found on the bones. The corpses were all put in the silo at the same time, meaning they likely died in the same event, a single episode of killing in a larger conflict.

In addition to the complete skeletons, archaeologists found the upper left arms of three adults and the left forearm of a youth 12 to 16 years old. The forearm was cut in the middle of the humerus. The arms are believed to be “war trophies.” It’s not possible from osteological examination to determine the sex of the people’s whose arms were severed and thrown into the silo, nor were archaeologists able to discern whether the arms were severed pre or post-mortem.

The severed left arms are reminiscent of another very similar massacre discovered in Bergheim, 35 miles southwest of Achenheim. In 2012, archaeologists found the skeletons of eight individuals, also tossed in a silo and who also died in a single event. Under the complete skeletons at the bottom of the pit were seven left upper arms. The Achenheim and Bergheim date to the same period, the Middle Neolithic.

(INRAP archaeologists also found skeletal remains in an ancient silo about 70 miles west of Achenheim in the Lorraine town of Marsal. Eight skeletons, two of them children, were discovered tossed haphazardly over each other in the silo, but they were much more recent, dating to around 500 B.C.)

Archaeologists think both the Achenheim and Bergheim massacres could have been the result of raid by locals against newcomers to the area, or a victory by locals against raiders from elsewhere. The victory was celebrated with torture and mutilation of enemy prisoners. Pottery discovered on the site indicates the residents were part of the Bruebach-Oberbergen culture, but that pottery is followed by ceramic shards in a style first made in Paris.

Archaeologists would like to do stable isotope analysis on the bones to find out where the individuals were born and raised. If they were from the Paris area, that would mean they were killed by the fierce local farmers defending their homes and supplies from raiders. If they were local boys, they were likely the victims of a successful raid. INRAP will need to raise money to fund the additional research, however, as they don’t have the budget for it now.

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