Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Family looking for broken sewer pipe finds 2,500 years of history

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

A family in Lecce, an ancient city on the tip of Italy’s boot heel, found a veritable historical complex under their feet when they began digging to find a faulty sewer pipe in 2000. Luciano Faggiano family had acquired the building at Via Ascanio Grandi 56 planning to use the first floor as a trattoria and live with his wife and youngest son upstairs. It was a historical property — part of the convent of Santa Maria delle Curti which was closed in the 17th century and the remains of whose cells are still visible in the first floor walls — but renovated with all modern conveniences. When one of those conveniences, the toilet, kept backing up, Faggiano enlisted his two older sons who no longer live at home to spend a week helping him dig underneath the house to find the broken sewer pipe causing the problem.

But one week quickly passed, as father and sons discovered a false floor that led down to another floor of medieval stone, which led to a tomb of the Messapians, who lived in the region centuries before the birth of Jesus. Soon, the family discovered a chamber used to store grain by the ancient Romans, and the basement of a Franciscan convent where nuns had once prepared the bodies of the dead.

Faggiano kept digging, removing the spoil in the trunk of his car, even tying a rope around the chest of his 12-year-old son to lower him into passages that were too small for the adults. Mrs. Faggiano was not informed of this. Eventually the neighbors got suspicious and called the cops. Since unapproved archaeological excavations are illegal, even when the original aim was sewer maintenance, the authorities blocked the dig for a year until making a deal with the Faggianos that they could continue under the supervision of archaeologists from the local Superintendence of Archaeological Goods and architects Franco and Maria Antonietta De Paolis.

All of this was done on the Faggianos’ dime and with their labor. The city just watched, ever more excitedly, as the Faggiano family’s excavations revealed the tomb of a Roman infant, other tombs and ossuaries, a deep pit that served as a charnel house where bodies were left to decompose before the bones were recovered and interred, water catchment cisterns, circular postholes cut into rock for Mesappian dwellings, grain silos, an ancient street, a well 10 meters (33 feet) deep that is still fed by the waters of the Idume, an underground river seven kilometers (4.3 miles) long that traverses the city of Lecce before emptying into the Adriatic, tunnels that may have been used by the religious orders — Templars, the Santa Maria convent and Franciscans have all inhabited the place at different times since the Middle Ages — to move around the city without being seen, a Messapian-era pavement (ca. 5th century B.C.), frescoed walls, ancient vases, an early episcopal ring, ceramics from the 1600s, an ancient altar among many other treasures.

More than 4,000 artifacts have been unearthed during the decade-plus of digging. They did find the sewer pipe after a few years, by the way, and it was broken. By then, of course, the trattoria idea was back-burnered and Luciano Faggiano rented one of the floors in the building to help fund this voyage of exploration through the layers of Lecce’s history. He’s still planning to open a trattoria, but in a new building. This one is now the Museum Faggiano where people can go down into the bowels of the structure to see the ancient history for themselves.

The museum’s website has a photo gallery which has sad little low res pictures, but the virtual tour is very satisfying as long as you click on the “View on Google Maps” link in the upper left corner which opens a lovely full screen navigation window with thumbnails to guide you through the highlights.

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Roman bronze harpy found in England

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

A team from the Colchester Archaeological Trust unearthed the rare Roman bronze figurine of a harpy in Brightlingsea on the southeastern coast of England. Archaeologist Ben Holloway discovered the petite four-inch high piece in September of last year during the preventative excavation of a section of the Moverons Quarry before gravel quarrying was slated to begin there. The artifact was in the top layer of fill in a field-boundary ditch that also had Roman pottery sherds and fragments of imbrex, Roman overlapping clay roof tile.

It is quite finely detailed, and is in the form of an upright bird with a woman’s head and with small wings which are fully open. The figure has feathers and talons, and braided hair; however, it seems to have a serpent’s tail which functions as a support. It is standing on a damaged base and also seems to have been attached at the top of the support.

The figurine has not been cleaned or conserved yet, so more details will be forthcoming. There is no indication from the context of why it ended up in the quarry site. It could have been anything from a discard to a votive offering. Its design is similar of the feet found on small, portable charcoal braziers Romans used for indoor heating.

Two braziers donated by Marcus Nigidius Vaccula to the Forum Baths and Stabian Baths of Pompeii in the late 1st century A.D. have harpy feet that look very much like larger versions of the Brightlingsea figurine. A bronze brazier called a foculus was used in the tepidarium to heat the air to a constant warm temperature. Bathers would sit on benches next to the brazier to get a good schphitz (ad flammam sudare) going before moving on to the hot waters of the caldarium.

The tepidarium was often the central room of the Roman bath complex and was the most elaborately decorated. Elegant architectural features like mosaic floors, marble inlays, sculpted support pillars and intricate reliefs were the setting for the most expensive high-end art works. The largest Roman sculptural group ever found, the breathtaking Farnese Bull, was discovered in the tepidarium of the Baths of Caracalla.

Although they have discovered evidence of thousands of years of habitation at the quarry site, from a Bronze Age ring-ditch to Anglo-Saxon huts, archaeologists have not found any conclusive evidence of Roman baths. They closest they came was a tile from a hypocaust, the underfloor hot air system used to heat baths and pricier homes, but they believe it was part of Roma farmhouse or villa in the area. Indeed, archaeologists found the remains of Roman field systems in the quarry, plus three Roman cremation burials from the 2nd-3rd century. If the harpy was part of a brazier, it was likely used in the home.

As an aside, the figurine was found just weeks after this same team found the hoard of jewelry hidden from Boudicca’s army Roman treasure at the Williams & Griffin store excavation in Colchester. What a productive few months they’ve had.

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Two 6th Dynasty priests’ tombs found at Saqqara

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015


Archaeologists excavating the site of Tabit El-Geish, south of Saqqara, have discovered two vividly painted tombs from the reign of 6th Dynasty pharaoh Pepi II (2,278–2,184 B.C. [yes, you read that right, a reign of 94 years, although the end date is disputed so he may have "only" reigned 64 years]). The discovery was made by the mission of the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale (IFAO) under the direction of Dr. Vassil Dobrev in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.

Both tombs were built on two levels: a top one on the surface made of mud brick, and a burial chamber below cut out of the white limestone bedrock. The burial chambers were both deep under the ground. The first tomb discovered belonged to a high priest named Ankh Ti and his burial chamber was 12 meters (40 feet) deep. The second tomb belonged to a priest named Sabi whose burial chamber was six meters (20 feet) deep.

The paintings decorate the walls of the limestone burial chambers and they are in excellent condition, their colors still bright more than 4,000 years after they were painted. Ankh Ti’s burial chamber paintings depict scenes of offerings to the gods including seven large jars used to contain the seven sacred oils necessary for the Opening of the Mouth ritual which made it possible for the deceased to eat and drink in the afterlife. On the left wall there is a lists of names of offerings and the quantity offered in a handsomely organized graph. (Old Kingdom Egyptians had spreadsheets down pat for at least three centuries by the time these tombs were built.) Next to the list is a false door with depictions of offerings including meat, birds, bread, vegetables, roses, milk and beer. Other scenes show incense balls, copper burning incense, head rests and the necklaces worn by priests during the performance of these rituals. Sabi’s tomb has similar paintings of the offerings and the list.

Human remains were found inside both burial chambers, but they were scattered about and there were no sarcophagi, the result of looting in antiquity, probably in the waning days of the Old Kingdom during the 7th or 8th Dynasty. The tombs weren’t completely emptied of artifacts by the thieves. Archaeologists found some funerary tools, alabaster jars, pottery and some colored limestone offering models.

The paintings and artifacts indicate Ankh Ti and Sabi were involved in mummification and funerary rituals as part of their priestly duties. The decoration of their tombs and the accessories buried with them were chosen to reflect the work they did in life.

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Pharaoh Senebkay died a violent death in battle

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Forensic studies on the skeletal remains of Pharaoh Senebkay discovered last year at Abydos have found numerous sharp-force injuries indicating that he died a brutal death in battle. A pharaoh from a weak transitional dynasty in Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (1650 and 1550 B.C.), Senebkay was beset by enemies to the north — the Canaanite Hyksos 15th Dynasty — and south — the Theban 16th and 17th Dynasties (1650 – 1590 B.C., 1580 – 1550 B.C.). These were turbulent times that would only come to end with the unification of Egypt under Pharaoh Ahmose I, founder of the 18th Dynasty and of the New Kingdom.

Senebkay lived somewhere in the middle of the Second Intermediate Period, probably around 1600 B.C., which makes him the earliest pharaoh known to have died in battle. Before this study the first pharaoh thought to have died in battle was Theban Pharaoh Seqnenre of the 17th Dynasty (ca. 1558 B.C.), father of the future Ahmose I. Although Seqnenre too was viciously slaughtered, there are no defensive wounds so he could well have been attacked in his sleep or executed by his Hyksos enemies.

Osteologists found that Senebkay was between 35 to 49 years old at the time of his death and of unusual height for his era at five feet seven inches to six feet tall. His wounds were so extensive he must have been the target of multiple attackers.

The king’s skeleton has an astounding eighteen wounds that penetrated to the bone. The trauma includes major cuts to his feet, ankles, knees, hands, and lower back. Three major blows to Senebkay’s skull preserve the distinctive size and curvature of battle axes used during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period. This evidence indicates the king died violently during a military confrontation, or in an ambush.

The weapon in question was a bronze duckbill axe. University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Josef Wegner, leader of the excavation team, believes the pharoah’s injuries, the weapons they were inflicted with and force with which they were used indicates professional soldiers took the king down in a fight rather than, say, assassins or muggers.

Senebkay appears to have been on horseback when the assault began. Wounds to his lower body — a cut to his right ankle so severe it would have all but amputed his foot, slashes on his knees and hands — were inflicted from the ground upwards and the strikes on his lower back indicate he was seated when he received them. That was more than enough to unhorse him. By the time his assailants embedded their axes in his skull, the pharaoh was probably on the ground.

Another surprising result of the osteological analysis is that muscle attachments on Senebkay’s femurs and pelvis indicate he spent a significant amount of his adult life as a horse rider. Another king’s body discovered this year in a tomb close to that of Senebkay also shows evidence for horse riding, suggesting these Second Intermediate Period kings buried at Abydos were accomplished horsemen.

This is a significant discovery because the introduction of the horse to Egypt was still recent at the time. The first inscriptions referring to the use of horses among the Egyptian elite appear shortly after this period and the chariots that would become inextricably associated with pharaonic Egypt weren’t introduced until the New Kingdom.

One of other skeletons thought to be from a royal tomb (other than Senebkay’s, none of the seven other royal tombs had cartouches identifying the deceased), was a powerfully built man trained to perform a strenuous, repetitive activity with his left arm, possibly archery or combat. Between their prowess on horseback and their tough physical training, it’s possible these Abydos pharaohs were warrior-kings. The research team is hoping to be able to confirm with DNA testing if any of the people found buried in the tombs bore a familial relationship to each other.

Because we know so little about the Abydos kings, the geographic boundaries of their territory are unclear. It seems Senebkay did not die close to Abydos, however. The linen bandages wrapping him are close to the bones, which means the body had already been decaying for a while when he was mummified. He could have been exposed, perhaps by the enemies who killed him, before being sent home, or the voyage home was so long it took several weeks to get his decomposing body to the royal necropolis at Abydos.

Possibly the king died in battle fighting against the Hyksos kings who at that time ruled northern Egypt from their capital at Avaris in the Nile Delta. However, Senebkay may have died in struggles against enemies in the south of Egypt. Historical records dating to Senebkay’s lifetime record at least one attempted invasion of Upper Egypt by a large military force from Nubia to the south. Alternatively, Senebkay may have had other political opponents, possibly kings based at Thebes.

The University of Pennsylvania team will continue excavations at Abydos and to study the remains in the hope of answering some of these questions.

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Mithras tauroctony, Picasso painting found in Italy

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

The Carabinieri art theft squad has recovered two major artworks in separate investigations: an early Cubist work by Pablo Picasso and an ancient Roman sculptural group of Mithras slaying the bull, a scene known today as a tauroctony. Only one of them, the sculpture, is known to have been looted. The Picasso painting is currently under investigation, but its purported provenance is a classic art smuggler’s tall tale, and a particularly bold iteration at that. It could be true, sure, but the Carabinieri clearly don’t think so or they wouldn’t have confiscated it.

The Picasso came to light when Sotheby’s, in the name of the putative current owner, filed an export license request in Venice for the oil painting Violin and Bottle of Bass made in 1912 by Pablo Picasso. The painting is listed in the 1961 edition of the great multi-volume catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works compiled by Christian Zervos. It was done in the early Analytic Cubist style developed by Picasso and Georges Braque characterized by a palette of browns and other neutrals and as such is extremely rare and desirable.

Yet, the declared value of this early work was 1.4 million euros ($1.5 million). That’s a ridiculously lowball figure for a painting that would go for at least 15 million euros ($16.2 million) in the open market and could easily make more at auction. The weirdly cheap Picasso drew the unblinking eye of art squad investigators who sought an explanation from the owner. Said owner turns out to be a retired Roman frame maker. In 1978, a gentleman of advanced age came to his shop holding a picture frame with a photo of his beloved late wife inside. The maid had apparently knocked over the frame and broken the glass, devastating the widower. The frame maker repaired the frame for free because it was such an easy fix. In gratitude, the customer repaid the frame maker by returning two days later with a gift: Violin and Bottle of Bass. The frame maker had no idea what a treasure he’d been given for replacing a two-cent piece of glass, so he just stashed it somewhere and forgot about it for 36 years until discovering by accident that he might have a Picasso.

Mysteries abound in this less than entirely believable story. Tests have confirmed the attribution of the painting to Picasso, but more will be forthcoming while the investigation proceeds.

The statue of Mithras is a looter’s special, too. The Carabinieri found it during a complex operation of surveillance centered in the Fiumicino area outside Rome where the airport is, a crossroads of the market in illicit archaeological goods. Carabinieri noticed a nondescript van with no external identifiers that for some reason had a motorized escort — a motorcycle in front and a Smart Car taking up the rear. They pulled the van over and searched it. The back was filled with flowers and plants under a tarp. Cops saw the nose of a bull sticking up through the plants and found the marble sculpture group with the soil from its illegal excavation still caked on it.

The sculpture dates from the 2nd-3rd century A.D. and depicts an iconic scene in Mithraism wherein the hero tilts back the bull’s head and slays the beast with a knife while a dog and snake lick its blood and a scorpion has a go at the bull’s testicles. Every Mithraeum had at least one representation of this scene, usually reliefs and frescoes. A large freestanding sculpture like this would have been extremely luxurious then, and it is even more so today. Experts put its value at a minimum of 8 million euros. Only two other large tauroctonies like this one are known to exist today, one in the British Museum, one in the Vatican Museums.

Soil tests of the dirt on the sculpture pinpointed two possible locations of origin in central Italy: the ancient Etruscan cities of Tarquinia and Vulci. The regional Culture Ministry immediately began emergency excavations at the possible sites and found the exact spot from which the statue had been looted. It was Tarquinia, and archaeologists found two smoking guns in the form of the little rampant dog missing from the sculpture and the head of the missing snake. They also unearthed a few other marble fragments, the remains of a mosaic floor and a terracotta tile floor that suggest this was once a Mithraem.

A map of Switzerland and Swiss traveling routes found in the van make it very clear where the tauroctony was headed if it hadn’t been intercepted. Its value on the open market would be something in the neighborhood of 8 million euros ($8.7 million), a meager thing compared to its immense historical value. The statue will go on temporary display at the Vatican Museums in a few weeks after which it will return to Tarquinia in July.

The Carabinieri announced a third recovery at the same press conference, an 18th century oil painting by Luca Carlevarijs entitled View of Piazza San Marco from the Dock. It was stolen on April 28th, 1984, from the home of a private collector and discovered last September in the hands of an art dealer in Milan indicted for receiving stolen goods and illegal export of a painting now in the United States. While searching the dealer’s home, cops found 190 photographs of paintings. One of them was the Carlevarijs. They compared the photos against the squad’s database of stolen cultural goods and discovered the 30-year-old theft. It seems the artwork had been given to the dealer by a collector in anticipation of its sale.

Carlevarijs was the founder of the Venetian school of vedute, meaning views or landscapes of the city, starting with etchings in 1703 and then moving on to oil paintings. Canaletto was strongly influenced by him, as you can see in this piece, and probably met Carlevarijs around 1720 when the young artist moved back home to Venice after studying in Rome. Canaletto may have been Carlevarijs’ pupil at this time — the sources are murky — but if so, he soon surpassed the master. In 1725, just five years after Canaletto’s return, art merchant Alessandro Marchesini would suggest to his client, collector Stefano Conti who was looking for vedute of Venice, that he acquire a piece by Canaletto who “inevitably amazes everyone here who sees his works, which are in the manner of Carlevaris, but light shines out from the sun.”

Compared to the Picasso and the tauroctony I’m afraid poor Mr. Carlevarijs doesn’t quite make the headline, but it amuses me how each of these stories touches on the standard tropes of the traffic in illicit art and antiquities. We’ve got a supershady provenance story, a recently excavated, high-quality ancient sculpture that was destined for surreptitious sale in Switzerland where it doubtless would have received brand new papers certifying it as having been in “an anonymous Swiss collection” for the past 50 years, and we have the art dealer acting as a fence and keeping a big cache of incriminating photographs of the pieces he is trying to sell/has sold illegally. It’s like looter’s bingo.

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Trajan’s Column up close and in stop-motion

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

National Geographic has devised some sort of doomsday mind reading device only instead of using it to enslave humanity like the rest of us would, they’ve chosen to hone in on one of my fondest dreams and make it come true: a proper close look at the helical relief that wraps itself around Trajan’s Column. Trajan’s Column, built in 113 A.D. to commemorate the emperor’s victories over the Dacians in two wars (101–102 and 105–106 A.D.), has a 625 foot-long frieze that winds around the 98 foot-high column shaft 23 times. There are 2,662 figures in 155 scenes plus scads of structures (pontoon bridges! forts!) and gear (weapons! army standards! exotic Dacian fashions!). The complexity of the carving, the density of characters and scenes, and, last but certainly not least, the monumental scale of the column make it an ideal candidate for digital exploration. Short of a surreptitious and illegal nighttime visit to Trajan’s Forum aboard a cherry picker, it’s simply impossible to see anything more than the pedestal close up in person.

Your best shot at a thorough look at the frieze in person is on the plaster casts in museums. The Museum of Roman Civilisation in the EUR neighborhood of Rome has a blessedly handy collection of casts of the relief separated into sections that are lined up in narrative order along three rows that you can walk through. Because the casts were made in the 19th century, the relief is in better condition than on the original column that has been exposed to an additional century and a half of pollution and erosion. The Victoria & Albert has plaster casts mounted on two central brick columns that makes them look like the column was cut in half. You can view it from ground level or from a gallery.

As far as digital options go, there are several excellent sites dedicated to Trajan’s Column. The University of St. Andrews has a phenomenal Trajan’s Column site that has a searchable database of images of the frieze that you can easily click through using a numbered map (after you click on a piece of the frieze, click zoom out to see all the images of that scene). It also has exceptional background information: explanations of numbering conventions used to identify scenes and figures, the drawings and casts that scholars have made to study the column, a detailed description of the column’s history, materials, construction method and more. The only problem is the photographs are small and it’s easy to lose your way in the details. There is no big picture view of the entire relief.

The German Archaeological Institute’s Arachne database has many images of Trajan’s Column, but they’re in black and white, watermarked and the interface is awkward, to put it mildly. Far more user friendly but still information-rich is the Trajan’s Column website created by Dartmouth College professor Roger B. Ulrich. The photographs are too small to quench my thirst. Google Art Project has a handful of good images of the plaster casts at the Museum of Roman Civilisation (this one of Trajan’s cavalry defeating the Sarmatian cataphract heavy cavalry is my favorite because you get to see the weird fish scale armour in detail), but nowhere near enough.

Wikipedia user MatthiasKabel has probably the best photographs of the complete column in situ on the web. Massive panoramas capture each side in exquisitely high resolution. They’re beautiful, but they’re just images, no information or key to help you interpret the riot of people, equipment and action. See them at the bottom of the Trajan’s Column entry.

The detailed view of the scenes flowing from one to the other has heretofore been lacking. That’s the gap National Geographic has filled. Their interactive graphic has a brief slideshow of highlights you can click through, but most importantly allows you to wind your way around the entire column, zooming in to examine whatever detail catches your fancy. They’ve created a simple color-coded notation system that categorizes the scenes by subject (marches, speeches, construction, etc.) and makes Trajan easy to spot because he’s been tinted yellow in all 58 of the scenes in which he appears.

As if that weren’t cool enough, National Geographic raised the bar to infinity and beyond by making a stop-motion animated video of how the column may have been constructed. There are several competing theories on the question, but none of their advocates have made a stop-motion video of them, so, you know…

But wait, there’s more! Damn that video was awesome, you say to yourself. I wish I could see how they made the magic happen. Well your wish has already come true, because there’s a making-of video. :boogie:

Lastly, because they’re a legitimate magazine with articles and what not, National Geographic has a story accompanying the great graphics that gives an overview of the history behind the column and of the Dacian culture Trajan all but obliterated from a perspective that is not imbued with Roman propaganda.

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Neanderthals made jewelry from eagle talons 130,000 years ago

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

A set of white-tailed eagle talons recovered from the 130,000-year-old Krapina Neanderthal site in Croatia have multiple cut marks, notches and polished facets that indicate the talons were once mounted in a piece of jewelry. Individual talons thought to have been used as pendants have been found at Neanderthal sites before, but this group of eight talons collected from at least three eagles was used for a more elaborate ornament that likely held symbolic meaning. Crafted early in the Middle Paleolithic era long before anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe about 45,000 years ago, the talons are evidence that Neanderthals created complex ornaments with symbolic significance independently of any later interactions with Homo sapiens sapiens.

The eight talons and one pedal phalanx (the toe bone associated with one of the talons) were found in the same level of a rock shelter on Hušnjak hill, near the Croatian town of Krapina, that was excavated by Croatian paleontologist Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger from 1899 to 1905. They were in the uppermost level which Gorjanović-Kramberger called the “Ursus spelaeus zone” because of its many cave bear bones. Although most of the Neanderthal bones were found more than halfway down site (level 4 on the diagram, labeled “Homo sapiens” because when it was drawn they hadn’t figured out yet that the bones belonged to another species of human), stone tools and one hearth were also found on the bear level confirming its use by Neanderthals. The entire site from top to bottom has a relatively short date span of about 10,000 years.

Only the cliff face is left today, but Gorjanović-Kramberger extensively documented and published the site and its contents — hundreds of Neanderthal bones and teeth, 2800 faunal remains, more than 800 stone tools — have been preserved at the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb where he was head of the Geological-Paleontological Department. Davorka Radovcic was reviewing the Natural History Museum’s Krapina Neanderthal collection in late 2013 after she was appointed its curator when she noticed the cut marks on the phalanx bone from the eagle talon set. Radovcic realized that the marks were made by humans. An international study of the talons ensued, the results of which were published earlier this month in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study examined each bone in microscopic detail and found that four of the talons and the phalanx have multiple cut marks whose edges have been smoothed, eight talons have been polished and/or abraded and three have notches in approximately the same area. Those smooth edges are how we know the cuts weren’t the result of butchering. Other fauna in the rock shelter bears the sharp cut marks of the butchering process and none of them have smoothed edges. This was done deliberately, probably by wrapping the talon in a fiber of some kind. The shiny polished areas look like what happens when bone rubs against bone. The research team believes these are the tell-tale signs of the claws having been mounted in a necklace or bracelet.

At Krapina, cut marks on the pedal phalanx and talons are not related to feather removal or subsistence, so these must be the result of severing tendons for talon acquisition. Further evidence for combining these in jewelry is edge smoothing of the cut marks, the small polished facets, medial/lateral sheen and nicks on some specimens. All are a likely manifestation of the separating the bones from the foot and the attachment of the talons to a string or sinew. Cut marks on many aspects, but not the plantar surfaces, illustrate the numerous approaches the Neandertals had for severing the bones and mounting them into a piece of jewelry.

As in ethnohistoric-present societies, the Neandertals’ practice of catching eagles very likely involved planning and ceremony. We cannot know the way they were captured, but if collected from carcasses it must have taken keen eyes to locate the dead birds as rare as they were in the prehistoric avifauna. We suspect that the collection of talons from at least three different white-tailed eagles mitigates against recovering carcasses in the field, but more likely represents evidence for live capture. In any case, these talons provide multiple new lines of evidence for Neandertals’ abilities and cultural sophistication. They are the earliest evidence for jewelry in the European fossil record and demonstrate that Neandertals possessed a symbolic culture long before more modern human forms arrived in Europe.

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Celtic 3rd c. BC bronze anklet found in Poland

Friday, March 20th, 2015

On February 28th of this year, Peter Kotowicz, an archaeologist with the Historical Museum of Sanok, received a phone call from a history-loving friend named Tomasz Podolak who told him he had found something interesting, possibly treasure, in the village of Pakoszówka near Sanok in southeastern Poland. Podolak has discovered ancient bronze artifacts before that are now in the museum — he received an award by the Minister of Culture last year for the finds and his reporting of the objects while they were still in situ — so as soon as Kotowicz hung up he got in his car and started driving.

When he arrived at the find site, he saw several shallow wells in the earth, each containing some bronze fragments. One of them held a larger piece with only the tip showing above the soil. At first glance, Kotowicz was unable to identify the objects although he suspected they might be of Celtic origin. When he excavated the initial finds and an area of approximately 20 feet around them, he realized the fragments were all pieces of a single item of a jewelry: a bronze anklet in a characteristic Celtic design from the 3rd century B.C.

The largest piece formed about half the ring. The traces of two hinges are visible on the end pieces. The edges of the fragments suggest the jewel broke apart in antiquity rather than as a result of modern activity. As one piece was found more than 50 feet away from the central cluster, it’s possible the anklet had been deliberately destroyed and its fragments strewn about, perhaps for ritual purposes.

Known by German term hohlbuckelringe, meaning hollow bulge ring, these ornaments are among the most distinctive Celtic designs. You can follow the trail of Celtic expansion into eastern Europe in the 3rd century B.C. by following the hohlbuckelringe like breadcrumbs. They first appear in southern German and the territories of the Boii tribe in what is today Bohemia, Czech Republic, in the early 3rd century. As the Celtic tribes moved east, so did the hohlbuckelringe. Examples have been unearthed in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and southeast from there into Asia Minor.

While Celts were known to have settled in the Sanok area during the La Tène period (450 B.C. – 1 B.C.), very little of their material culture has been recovered from this part of Poland. Almost nothing was known of the Celtic presence in the San river valley until excavations in the 1990s found evidence of settlement like pottery sherds, fragments of a glass bracelet, a hearth, an iron sword and, the most prized Celtic artifact in the Historical Museum of Sanok, a gold coin discovered by happenstance in the village of Trepcza.

So while this newly discovered anklet is in pieces, incomplete and plain in decoration (more elaborate versions were made from precious metals and added swirls and bumps to the bulges), it’s a significant and unique find. No other examples of this archtypical form of Celtic female adornment have been unearthed in the region. Kotowicz believes that after the gold coin and the iron sword in the Regional Museum in Rzeszów, this ankle ring is the most exceptional Celtic artifact south of the Carpathians.

The location where the hohlbuckelringe was discovered has not previously been considered of archaeological import. Archaeologists plan to thoroughly scan the area with metal detectors. They’re also hoping to secure funding for more in depth research and additional excavations, but that will depend on the assessment of the regional conservation office.

The ankle ring is now being conserved at the museum in Sanok. It will go on display later this year in one of the underground exhibition halls of Sanok castle.

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University at Buffalo rediscovers ancient coins after 80 years

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

The State University of New York at Buffalo has rediscovered a priceless collection of ancient Greek and Roman coins that spent 80 years unpublished and unrecognized in the library’s archive. The 55 coins were donated to the UB Libraries Special Collections by Buffalo lawyer and rare book collector Thomas B. Lockwood. Lockwood had donated the money to build the university library, now named the Lockwood Memorial Library in his honor, and donated his vast collection of rare books in 1935. The coins, acquired by Lockwood at the auction of a Danish collector’s estate in 1925, were included in the Lockwood’s collection of more than 3,000 rare books, medallions and more recent coins from America and England.

Even though they didn’t get any scholarly or curatorial attention, the coins were vaguely known to exist. In 2010, University at Buffalo assistant professor of classics Philip Kiernan heard a rumor from a UB alumnus that there was a collection of rare ancient coins in the library somewhere. In 2013, Kiernan, who studies ancient currency and whose previous job was at a German coin museum, hit the archives to look for the rumored numismatic treasures.

He found three wood-frame glass casings, one containing 12 gold Roman coins labeled the Aureii of the Twelve Caesars, an appropriately literary grouping for a collector of rare books with its reference to Suetonius, and two containing 40 silver Greek coins from as early as the 5th century B.C. In a small pouch he found another three ancient Greek gold coins.

“I saw these trays and thought, oh this is some kind of reproductive set from the early 20th century, some kind of copies,” Kiernan said Wednesday, displaying the find for reporters. “However, when we opened up the trays and pulled out the coins – nope, they’re perfectly good ancient coins.” [...]

“I was flabbergasted,” Kiernan said. “I couldn’t believe that an institution like UB had a collection of this quality in its special collections, as of yet unstudied, unpublished … coins that were issued by the most powerful and most important city-states of the Classical and Hellenistic worlds.”

He brought in numismatists to examine the coin collection and they confirmed its authenticity. The aureii, one each from the rule of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, were extremely valuable in antiquity, worth so much that they were barely circulated but instead were treated more like portable savings accounts so they experience far less wear and tear than smaller denominations. The silver coins circulated more widely throughout the Mediterranean world, but the ones in the Lockwood collection are almost all in excellent condition. Only a few of the silver coins will require conservation. The 80-plus-year-old casings need some sprucing up as well.

The Otho aureus is the most rare. Otho only ruled for three months, January to April, in 69 A.D., the infamously awful Year of the Four Emperors. His aureii are therefore particularly hard to find, and this example appears to have a mistake in its engraving: the goddess Securitas on the reverse holds a wreath and a cornucopia. On the usual version of this coin she holds a wreath and scepter.

UB Libraries will make the collection available for study to students and members of the community. UB graduate students will benefit in a big way because Kiernan is developing a graduate course that will study and research each coin’s history. The seminar’s findings will be the first scholarly literature published about this group of rare coins.

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Unique Olmec jadeite corncob found in Mexico

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Underwater archaeologists exploring a stream in the Arroyo Pesquero site in southern Veracruz, Mexico, have discovered a unique Olmec artifact carved out of jadeite that appears to be a stylized corncob. The small object is 8.7 centimeters high by 2.5 centimeters wide (3.4 inches by 1 inch) and is made of mottled orangey brown and white jadeite. It is highly polished and is carved in smooth relief with some scratched incised lines. At the base is tapering cylinder that was broken at some point and was smoothed afterwards. Above the base the object has three sides divided by grooves, each side carved with two rectangular stacked shapes that have v-shaped clefts in the center top. At the bottom of each rectangle is a scratched incision in a scalloped shape. At the top of the object is a tapered cone emerging from the top row of clefts.

Cleft rectangles with cones emerging from them are relatively common in Middle Formatic Olmec iconography, but this piece is unique because the cleft rectangles are stacked instead of being a single individual and because they are carved in three dimensions in the round. Many Olmec scholars contend that cleft rectangles represent an ear of corn, but if that is accurate in this case, the artifact depicts six stacked ears of corn with an ear of an entirely different shape rising from the top of the stack. The archaeologists who found and published the artifact in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica believe that the cleft rectangles represent corn kernels, perhaps of seed corn, which would make the conical element on top a representation of the corn plant as it grows from seed. It could also be a husked corn cob. If their reading is correct, the standard interpretation of corn elements in Olmec iconography will have to be revised.

Archaeologists date it to the Olmec Middle Formative period (900–400 B.C.). No Olmec buildings from that period have been discovered at Arroyo Pesquero above or below ground, but just 10 miles northeast lies the Olmec center of La Venta which at its peak during the Middle Formative had a population of 10,000 and is renown for its 112-foot-high Great Pyramid, mosaic pavements and monumental sculptures including four of the colossal heads most associated with Olmec culture.

In addition to its one-of-a-kind iconographic approach and three-dimensional form, this artifact is unique for having been the first found at Arroyo Pesquero as part of a systematic archaeological investigation. The underwater archaeological site of Arroyo Pesquero was discovered by a local fisherman in 1969 who was searching in a deep stream for a metal basin that had been dropped by the son of a friend when he was at stream collecting fresh water for the family’s use. In the course of looking for the basin, he found stone masks, anthropomorphic figurines, celts (smooth axes). Archaeologist Manuel Torres Guzman heard about it and visited the site in 1970, hiring divers to retrieve thousands more stone artifacts and pyrite mirrors from the streambed.

Since then, the site has been a magnet for local and foreign artifact looters. There was only one other official archaeological exploration of the Arroyo Pesquero site: a week-long expedition in 1986 that aimed to recover objects for the new Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa. They found some pottery sherds downstream of where the masks were found in ’69 and that’s it. Artifacts discovered at Arroyo Pesquero are now in the Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, the Museum de la Universidad de Veracruz and in major museums and private collections all over Mexico, the United States and Europe.

In 2005, archaeologists Carl Wendt and Roberto Lunagómez initiated the Proyecto Arqueológico Arroyo Pesquero (PAAP), a research program to collect survey data and excavate a number of Olmec sites in the Arroyo Pesquero area. It was the first underwater archaeology work done in Veracruz. Since then PAAP has completed a regional reconnaissance survey and seven years of fieldwork. The 2012 season focused on the Arroyo Pesquero streambed where the Olmec artifacts were discovered in 1969. The goal was to map the topography of the underwater surface and to record the presence and distribution of artifacts.

Between April and May of 2012, PAAP divers braved atrocious underwater conditions — zero visibility and obstructions including large logs, debris, decomposing leaves and assorted other vegetation — to measure the streambed features, precisely note artifact positions using sub-meter GPS and recover a few them. The corncob was the most significant of the finds. It was recovered from a shallow depression on the bed between two and three meters under the water’s surface.

Given the great numbers of artifacts found at the bottom of the freshwater stream, archaeologists believe the site held religious significance to the Olmecs. The cache spot is in a point of the stream where fresh and brackish water meet. If this confluence of fresh water necessary to sustain human life and salt water necessary to sustain the life that helps sustains human life was in the same location 2,500 or so years ago, that would make it an ideal place for votive offerings. In many Mesoamerican cultures, springs, cenotes, watery caves were held as sacred, entrance points between the underworld and our living earth. People would leave offerings and make sacrifices to the gods in these hallowed places.

The corncob, symbol of abundance, life, power and authority, would make for a powerful offering. Archaeologists aren’t certain how it was originally used. The bottom is truncated and was smoothed over after the breakage. It could have been a finial topping a scepter or staff carried, as one sees often in Olmec art, in one hand by individuals presented as lords or rulers. It could also hae been the handle of a perforator (aka a blood-letter) which was deliberately broken and then refinished at the break point. Or it could just be a portable figurine representing corn.

Whatever its use, its symbolism was powerful. Depositing such a representation of abundance and strength at the spot where salt and fresh water meet would have been a highly meaningful offering, all the more so because the coastal region is replete with salt water while freshwater sources are rare.

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