Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Five centuries of history unearthed in Roman villa

Friday, August 18th, 2017

An international team of archaeologists, students and volunteers excavating the Roman villa of Durreueli at Realmonte in Sicily have unearthed evidence of habitation and usage from a much broader period than previously realized.

Through a month of excavations, they determined the villa was consistently occupied between the 2nd and 7th century CE and reconfigured to settlement in the 5th century Common Era (CE). That conclusion comes following the discovery of new walls, floor levels, staircase and water channel.

The team found cookware and lamps along with a large quantity of African Late Roman pottery and related materials such as kiln spacers. This leads researchers to believe an important function of the village was to produce pottery, bricks and tiles in industrial scale, helping explain the economic history of Late Antique Sicily.

One of Sicily’s largest Roman villas covering 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) in area, the Durreueli remains were first discovered in the early 1900s during railroad construction. They weren’t professionally excavated until 1979 when a team of Japanese archaeologists explored the site for six years. They unearthed important parts of the villa, including its baths and exceptional mosaics dedicated to the deities of the sea the structure so dramatically overlooks, but nowhere near the wide range of dates that the current excavation has encountered.

After Japanese excavation ended in 1985, the site was closed the public and all but ignored, even though it is just a hop, skip and a jump from the area’s preeminent tourist attraction, the Scala dei Turchi (the staircase of the Turks), a limestone rock formation that looks like gigantic steps built on a golden beach. The city of Agrigento with its exceptional Doric temple is just six miles to the east.

Dig director Dr. Davide Tanasi, assistant professor in History at the University of South Florida, sought to rectify this unfortunate neglect of such significant archaeological remains. Working with the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage of Agrigento, Tanasi not only excavated the villa this season, making important finds that vastly expanded its chronology, he enlisted USF’s state-of-the-art Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies (CVAST) to thoroughly scan the site and create 3D views that will prove invaluable in determining the best approach to ongoing excavations in interpreting the phases of construction.

There aren’t any really good pictures of the excavation (not by my standards anyway), but Dr. Tanasi’s YouTube channel steps into the breach. There are super-short videos of the excavators in action:

Charming testimonials from participants in the project:

And the greatest gems in the collection, aerial and terrestrial 3D scans of the whole villa which are extremely cool views for we civilians as well as and essential tools for archaeologists.

The USF team will return to the villa next summer for a second season of excavations.

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Silver in coins tracks Rome’s rise to power

Monday, August 14th, 2017

A study of Roman coins has discovered a significant shift in the source of the silver in the early 3rd century B.C. from Greece and its former colonies in southern Italy to the Iberian Peninsula. German and Dutch researchers took samples from 70 silver coins minted between 310 and 101 B.C., drilling minute holes in the rims of the coins to access unweathered heart metal. The samples were subjected to geochemical analysis to determine their metal composition. The team was able to determine the quantities and proportions of major elements (identified by an electron probe microanalyzer or EPMA), trace elements (identified using Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry or LA-ICP-MS) and lead isotope signatures (identified using a Multicollector-Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer or MC-ICP-MS).

The lead isotope values of Roman silver coins before 209 B.C. largely overlap with coins minted in Magna Graecia from silver ore mined in the Aegean and Rhodope Mountain regions. The study found that the majority of coins minted after 209 B.C. were made from silver mined in the southern Iberian peninsula, source of the richest silver mines in the Mediterranean. The post-209 B.C. coins also have a higher silver content, greater than 96% by weight.

These findings are evidence of a massive shift in wealth from Carthage to Rome during and after the 2nd Punic War (218-201 B.C.). That 209 B.C. would be a demarcation line is no coincidence. Rome’s first attempt to relieve Carthage of its Iberian territories in 211 B.C. had failed miserably with the defeat of brothers Publius Scipio and Gnaeus Scipio in the battles of Castulo and Ilorca.

Their humiliation would be redeemed two years later by Publius’ son Scipio Africanus. He did what his father and uncle could not do and conquered Qart Hadasht (the Carthaginian name for the city of Carthage), modern-day Cartagena, a Mediterranean port city founded in 227 B.C. by Hasdrubal the Fair as the jumping off point for the Punic conquest of Spain. More than a century later, it was still the seat of Carthaginian power on the Iberian peninsula. By taking Cartago Nova, as Scipio renamed it, Rome hobbled Carthage’s control of the southeast. The loss was compounded in 208 B.C. when Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal at Baecula. Scipio broke the last of Carthage’s power in Iberia in 206 B.C. when he defeated an allied army of Carthage and Numidia at the Battle of Ilipa.

Cartago Nova had massive silver mines and indeed would go on to provide a constant supply of silver for the late Roman Republic and Roman Empire for centuries. Between Scipio’s successful conquest of Carthage’s silver-rich southern Iberian territories, war booty and, after the cessation of hostilities, the forced payment of punitive reparations, Rome was newly in possession of enormous silver resources. It wasted no time in converting them to cold hard cash.

Dr Katrin Westner, of the Institute for Archaeological Sciences at Goethe University, Frankfurt, one of the leaders of a group of scientists in Germany and Denmark that carried out the research, said the effect on the Roman empire was profound.

“This massive influx of Iberian silver significantly changed Rome’s economy, allowing it to become the superpower of its day. We know this from the histories of Livy and Polybius and others, but our work gives contemporary scientific proof of the rise of Rome. What our work shows is that the defeat of Hannibal and the rise of Rome is written in the coins of the Roman Empire.” […]

Professor Kevin Butcher, of the department of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick, said the project had confirmed what had previously only been speculation. “This research demonstrates how scientific analysis of ancient coins can make a significant contribution to historical research. It allows what was previously speculation about the importance of Spanish silver for the coinage of Rome to be placed on a firm foundation.”

The results of the study were presented on Monday at the Goldschmidt Conference which is being held in Paris this week.

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Carved bones reveal Ice Age ritual cannibalism

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

A research team from the Natural History Museum in London team has found evidence of ritual cannibalism on 15,000-year-old skeletal remains. The study focused on a single bone, a radius (the large bone of the forearm) that was unearthed in 1987 from Gough’s Cave, a limestone cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, southwestern England, which has one the greatest numbers of human skeletal remains from the Magdalenian period (ca. 17,000–12,000 years before the present). Examination of the bone and microscopic analysis of bone biopsy samples revealed cut marks, damage from percussive force and engraved incisions. It’s the last of these that suggest a ritual component to the cannibalistic practices of the Upper Paleolithic inhabitants of Cheddar Gorge.

Evidence of nutritional cannibalism has been found on other bones in Gough’s Cave — butchering and tooth marks on ribs and even toe bones — and human crania cut for use as skull cups have also been discovered, but the patterned incisions on the radius are the first intentional engravings identified on the cave’s Ice Age human remains. Microscopic analysis makes clear that the incisions are distinct from the slicing marks left by butchering and comparison with more than 400 other cut marks on bones, human and animal, discovered in Gough’s Cave.

By careful three-dimensional analysis of the microscopic characteristics of each mark, such as its depth and the angle of incision, they distinguished between marks made for butchery purposes and those made for engraving.

The results suggest that bones had been cleaned of their muscle and tendons, before being roughly engraved in one sitting by a single individual, using one tool.

Since breaks in the bones run across the engraving, the bones must have been broken to extract the marrow after the engraving had been made.

“The sequence of the manipulations strongly suggests that the engraving was an intrinsic part of the multi-stage cannibalistic ritual and, as such, the marks must have held a symbolic connotation,” says [the study’s lead author Dr. Silvio] Bello.

The incisions were made in linear, zig-zag patterns that have been seen before in Magdalenian contexts. Animal bones this period found in France have similar engravings, and multiple animals bones in Gough’s Cave are also engraved with the zig-zag incisions. The patterns engraved on the radius bone, however, are the first on a human bone ever found at a Paleolithic site. In fact, it is the earliest known example of an incised human bone, period.

As for what the symbolic purpose of these engravings may have been, there is no way to determine that. It could have been purely artistic, but the inextricable association with the butchering and eating of the dead suggests a more complex motivation.

“Archaeologists have linked the engraving of objects and tools to ways of remembering events, places or circumstances, a sort of ‘written memory’ and ‘symbolic glue’ that held together complex social groups.

“Perhaps the engraving of this bone may have told a sort of story, more related to the deceased than the surrounding landscape. It could be that they are indicative of the individual, events from their life, the way they died, or the cannibalistic ritual itself.”

The study has been published in the journal PLOS One and can be read free of charge here.

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Amphora burial found at Circus of Carthage

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

An international team of archaeologists excavating the Circus of Carthage in modern-day Tunis have discovered a rare amphora burial in the cavea, the seating section of the circus. Amphora burials were a common practice in ancient North Africa, but they are usually reserved for babies whose remains can easily fit into a clay jar. This amphora is large enough that it could well have contained the skeletal remains of an adult. Dating to the sixth century A.D., it is the only burial discovered at the circus site from after its construction.

The jar found in Carthage may have been big enough for the remains of an adult: the few bone fragments inside are still being analyzed. At this point, grave robbers had left behind so little that any conclusions beyond the discovery of a large pottery amphora with bones and shells inside, would be speculation.

Also, whether or not they interred the remains in the dead of night, between races, or the track was already defunct, we do not know. It is also possible that the Carthaginian circus stopped functioning as a racetrack in the mid-6th century C.E., and was “repurposed” as a cemetery.

Carthage’s circus was built in the 3rd century and was in use for chariot racing and gladiatorial combat into the 6th century. Racing and fighting appear to have stopped after the 530s A.D., but the site was still used for gaming, just of a less organized nature. The excavation unearthed one bone die in the cavea close to the amphora burial.

“The arena was much more than just a racetrack. It was a place to enjoy yourself, meet friends and later, probably after the races had stopped, people probably still living in the area used it to bury their loved ones, maybe out of an affiliation to the building and its role for the community,” [excavation head Dr. Ralf] Bockmann concludes.

Geophysical studies of the Circus of Carthage in the 1970s determined that the arena was about 500 meters (1640 feet) long, 80 meters (262 feet) shorter than the largest of all racing arenas, the Circus Maximus in Rome after which Carthage’s arena was explicitly modeled. Excavations in the next decade found it was even closer to the Circus Maximus in width: 77 meters (253 feet), just two meters slimmer than Rome’s circus. In dimensions alone, Carthage’s arena was the second largest in the Roman Empire, however it had nowhere near the Circus Maximus’ capacity, seating about 45,000 people to Rome’s 150,000.

The German Archaeological Institute (DAI) has been exploring Tunisia’s enormously varied archaeological sites since the 1960s — its work in Carthage was instrumental to the ancient city’s inclusion on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List in 1979 — but the current circus excavation is the result of a 2015 cooperation agreement with the Tunisian Institute National du Patrimoine (INP). A full study and excavation of the Circus of Carthage was the express purpose of the agreement, and archaeologists from DAI and INP have been working together on the first topographical study to examine all the phases of the circus’ history. Because the circus was inside the ancient Punic walls, was in use for centuries and has never been overbuilt, researchers hoped the project would illuminate much about Carthage’s development from the Punic era through the Roman and Vandal periods into the dawn of the Islamic era. Their hopes have been borne out in spades.

A mosaic in Tunis’ Bardo Museum of a chariot race at the circus is the only known representation of the both the interior of the arena and the exterior of the structure. The exterior facade has two tiers of arches. The bleachers are protected from the deadly North African sun by an awning stretched over poles, a design more seen in upscale amphitheaters like the Colosseum rather than in circuses. The heat of Carthage made this unusual arrangement necessary.

Last year’s excavation unearthed another practical accommodation to make a day at the races possible. In the spina (the strip down the middle of the circus the charioteers drove around), the DAI and INP team found hydraulic mortar, the lime mortar Romans used for structures involving water. The mortar was used in water basins that dotted the spina. The water would be scooped up in amphorae by sparsores, men who took on the dangerous job of sprinkling water onto the horses and the chariot wheels as they rounded the turns at the ends of the spina. Possibility of accidental mangling: very high.

This season’s dig has been even more fruitful. The team has found remains much older than the late-ancient amphora burial, going back to the thriving Punic capital before Scipio Aemilianus took Cato the Elder’s advice and went full delenda est on Carthage.

Aside from the excavation of the spectators rank itself, the archaeologists dug two other trenches within the monumental circus. One was to investigate the forerunners of the circus: the buildings that had been torn down to build it in the first place. One seems to have been a necropolis with impressive mausoleums dating from the relatively earlier Roman period.

Others were older, Punic in origin – built by the original Carthagians, who trace their origins to the Phoenicians from the Near East mixing with the local Berber tribes.

The area that was later to become the circus arena had undergone multiple reincarnations beforehand, having served in artisanal and economic activities.

There, the excavators discovered a posthole building, with a cut used to hold a surface timber or stone. This year the archaeologists managed to date this edifice to the Punic period, says Dr Iván Fumadó Ortega, the project head for the Punic era, adding that it was the first structure of its kind found at Carthage.

“We think that the structure, using cavities in the natural rock covered by wooden roofs, probably served a craft that used liquids in large quantities, maybe dyeing or tanning,” Ortega added. Perhaps we will know more about this home, and about the interment of gambling fiends in the bleachers, after further excavations next year.

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Whole Roman neighborhood found near Lyons

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

Archaeologists surveying a site before construction of a housing development on the outskirts of the city of Vienne, east-central France, have unearthed an entire Roman neighborhood. Located on the right bank of the River Rhône less than 20 miles south of Lyon in the small municipality of Sainte Colombes, the site covers an astonishing 7,000 square meters (75,347 square feet) and contains extensive remains of private and public structures from the 1st century A.D. through the 3rd century.

Some of the buildings discovered this far include luxurious private homes, shopfronts and a large public structure built on what had previously been a market whose standout feature is a monumental fountain with a statue of Hercules. Archaeologist and excavation leader Benjamin Clément thinks it may have been a school of rhetoric or philosophy. Vienne had a very famous one (it’s mentioned in several inscriptions) but its remains haven’t been found. This may be it.

The ancient city of Vienne which was a major transportation hub in Roman Gaul. The Rhône and one of the most important Roman roads in the country, the Via Agrippa, both passed through Vienne. It was prosperous and it showed, with its circus and an early Imperia temple to Augustus and his wife Livia erected by the Emperor Claudius. In Roman times Vienne covered both sides of the river. Modern Vienne cleaves to the left bank while Sainte Colombes occupies the right. The Roman archaeological site of Saint-Romain-en-Gal and its Gallo-Roman museum are on the right bank.

There is evidence that the neighborhood was devastated by two major fires, one in the early 2nd century and the other in the middle of the 3rd century. Inhabitants rebuilt after the first fire, but the second seems to have resulted in the permanent abandonment of the site. Because their departure was hasty and under pressure, residents left behind a number of artifacts. Add to that the good condition of several of the buildings and the inevitable Pompeii comparisons arise. Like most sites cursed with a Pompeii-related monicker, it bears only a the most passing resemblance to the ancient city that was both preserved and destroyed by a natural disaster.

Among the structures to have partly survived are an imposing home dubbed the Bacchanalian House after a tiled floor depicting a procession of maenads (female followers of the god of wine, known as Dionysus or Bacchus) and joyful half-man, half-goat creatures known as satyrs.

A blaze consumed the first floor, roof and balcony of the sumptuous home, which boasted balustrades, marble tiling, expansive gardens and a water supply system, but parts of the collapsed structure survived.

The archaeologists believe the house belonged to a wealthy merchant.

“We will be able to restore this house from the floor to the ceiling,” [dig leader Benjamin] Clement said.

In another house, an exquisite mosaic depicts a bare-bottomed Thalia, muse and patron of comedy, being kidnapped by a lustful Pan, god of the satyrs.

Excavations were originally scheduled to end in September, but nobody expected to find such rich archaeological materials so the dig has been extended to December. That will barely scratch the surface of so large an ancient site. The real estate development will go forward as planned, so archaeologists are going to have to remove everything they can to preserve it in the laboratory. Some of the finds will go on temporary display in a 2019 exhibition at the Gallo-Roman Museum about the Via Agrippa and its significance to the region.

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Friendship-killing Boldre Hoard goes on display

Monday, July 31st, 2017

A hoard of 1,608 coins Roman coins discovered by metal detectorists in a field it Boldre, in the New Forest near Lymington, Hampshire, in 2014, has gone on public display for the first time at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Lymington. The hoard dates to the 3rd century A.D. and contains bronze radiates from the second half of the 3rd century. The earliest coin in the group was minted under the reign of Trebonianus Gallus (249-51 A.D.). The most recent is barely 25 years older, struck in 276 in the waning days of the emperor Tacitus (275-6 A.D.). The bulk of the coins were found in the remains of a round vessel, 15 sherds from the bottom of the earthenware pot.

After slumbering underground for more than 1,700 years since its owner buried his savings, disturbed only by the farm equipment that likely broke the pot, the hoard has seen quite a bit of drama starting with the moment of its discovery. There were several metal detectorists scanning that field in Boldre on May 4th, 2014, among them two old friends Andy Aartsen and James Petts. Aartsen made the first discovery: 25-30 coins on their own. Then Petts hit the motherlode, finding the remains of the pot and its coin hoard of more than 1,500 pieces.

Aartsen had scanned that area earlier and gotten a signal but had moved on. According to the rules of the metal detecting club, if you walk away from a signal it counts as abandonment and the next guy gets to pick up where you left off, but Aartsen apparently thought his earlier signal granted him perpetual rights because he told Petts “Eff off, it’s mine.” That’s a quote from James Petts’ testimony at the coroner’s inquest that determined whether the coin hoard was official treasure by the standards of the Treasure Act of 1996, which is downright spicy compared to the usual testimony from British Museum and Portable Antiquities Scheme experts one encounters at treasure inquests.

The conflict caused a permanent rift between the former friends, and it really wasn’t about the money because bronze radiates aren’t big ticket items. The amount of the valuation that would be paid by the museum that acquired the hoard was around £8,000 to be split 50/50 by the finder and landowner. This fight was all about credit, who gets to be the official finder of the Boldre Hoard. Andy Aartsen wanted to be declared the sole finder; Petts wanted it declared a joint find of both men, which seems more than fair given that he found the vast majority of the hoard and the container. At the time of the inquest, the dispute was still ongoing and Central Hampshire Coroner Grahame Short suggested the two ex-friends might have to duke it out in court if they couldn’t come to an agreement. I couldn’t discover what the disposition their dispute was, but the articles about the new exhibition refer only to James Petts as the finder.

The British Museum seemed interested in acquiring the rarest of the coins — three coins struck under the rule of Marius who reigned for exactly 12 weeks in 269 A.D. — but that would have broken up the hoard. The St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery wanted to keep every coin and the pot together and put them on display a few miles away from where they were discovered and that was going to require some fast fundraising.

Rosalyn Goulding, of the museum, said the coins were an “exciting” find for the town.

“We haven’t had too much evidence of Roman activity here but this find helps us to build up a picture of settlement and agriculture,” she said.

“One of the coins is really interesting because it has an unrecorded reverse.

“The emperors would strike a series of coins and they each had a pattern to them – they would have similar things on the front and on the reverse – but this one had an altar on the back which has never before been seen on a Divus Victorious coin, or any coins issued by Victorious.”

Historian and television presenter Dan Snow who lives in the area launched the fundraising campaign last fall with a target of £30,000 ($40,000). Donations large and small came from private individuals, local businesses, organizations and grants from charitable trusts. When the January 31st deadline arrived, the campaign was just short of its target at £27,842.20. One of the donors, American Anglophile Richard Beleson, bumped up his already generous donation of £7,500 in matching funds to cover the shortfall.

Most of that money was not needed for the acquisition of the hoard itself, which was modestly valued. It was to be spent on conservation of the hoard, necessary restoration of the space and to build a secure display case which will preserve the coins and pot in controlled conditions. The hoard’s needs fit seemlessly with the museum’s. A month before the fundraiser was launched, the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery began an extensive refurbishment paid for by a £1.78 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The galleries were enlarged, the entrance improved and a new cafe was built. All together, this was a major upgrade for the small local museum, making it a fitting home for the Boldre Hoard and the extra eyeballs it is sure to draw. (Everybody loves a hoard, especially when it’s a local kid made good.)

The refurbished museum had its grand reopening on Saturday with the Boldre Hoard as its centerpiece and signature treasure. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu did the honors, officially opening the inauguration day festivities.

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Entirely non-alien child with cranial deformation found in Crimea

Saturday, July 29th, 2017

Archaeologists and student volunteers have discovered the skeletal remains of a young child with an artificially deformed cranium in a necropolis on the Kerch peninsula in eastern Crimea. The team from the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Archeology Foundation have been excavating the ancient necropolis of Kyz-Aul for three weeks. Several graves dating from the 1st century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. have already been unearthed during this field season. They’ve found the remains of Sarmatian soldiers in monumental stone crypts and horse burials, but the child’s grave is the only one to feature the elongated skull characteristic of intentional cranial deformation.

Researchers have confirmed from osteological analysis that the remains are those of a boy. Because his fontanelle was not fully closed, scientists were able to determine that he was around 18 months old at time of death. His remains were radiocarbon dated to the 2nd century A.D. when the peninsula was part of the Bosporan Kingdom, a Hellenistic kingdom that became a client state of the Roman Empire in 1st century. The bones are in an excellent state of preservation. Buried with the child were a clay vessel near his head and a few small beads of colored glass. The boy was wearing a copper alloy bracelet on his right wrist. He was interred directly in the ground. No remains of a coffin, gravestone or marker were found.

The excavation team nicknamed this find “the grave of an alien” because of the skull shape, an unfortunate phrase that all of the articles in the press have glommed onto even though intentional cranial deformation has been an entirely terrestrial human phenomenon for thousands of years. Examples of it have been found in every inhabited continent, and the inhabitants of the Black Sea coast, most notably the Sarmatians, had been altering their children’s’ skull shapes for centuries by the time this little boy was born.

The cranial modification process began in infancy when the bones of the skull are malleable. In the Black Sea region, people wrapped plaits around babies’ heads and over time the pressure of the wrapping changed the shape of the skull. The elongated egg shape was considered more aesthetically pleasing than the regular old boring skulls they were born with, and had important cultural and social significance because it was an attribute of the Sarmatian military nobility who were increasingly powerful in the Bosporan Kingdom. It was primarily boys destined to be elite fighters who had their skulls modified, so it’s likely this child was slated to be a Sarmatian warrior.

The date of the child burial is a meaningful one within this context because the Sarmatian warrior elite, who mainly fought as heavy cavalry for the Bosporan Kingdom, had grown in power and influence to such a degree that by the 2nd century A.D., the formerly Hellenistic kingdom was increasingly Sarmatized. It was in the 2nd century that the last of the Greek ruling dynasties died out and was replaced by a new Sarmatian dynasty. This takeover had far-reaching cultural implications. Artisan crafts were decorated with Sarmatian motifs instead of Greek ones. Even the way people dressed changed, with trousers and long-sleeved shirts replacing the Greek tunics and gowns.

At the same time, Sarmatians made peace with the Romans, who had been fighting them since the 1st century B.C., and in 175 A.D. negotiated a treaty with Emperor Marcus Aurelius. By the terms of the treaty, the Sarmatians agreed to send Rome 8,000 of their famed heavy cavalry. More than half of them were sent very far from home to guard Hadrian’s Wall. Sarmatian artifacts — weapons, beads — have been found at the wall, and there are surviving documents that record Sarmatian squadrons manning several of the forts.

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Longest funerary inscription found on Pompeiian tomb

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Archaeologists working near Pompeii’s Porta Stabia gate have unearthed a monumental tomb with the longest funerary inscription ever discovered in the ancient city. The tomb was found by accident during maintenance and restoration work on buildings in the San Paolino area as part of the EU-funded Great Pompeii Project. A crew restoring a 19th century palazzo slated to become the new library and offices of the archaeological superintendency came across a fragment of marble while doing depth tests on the foundations. Marble is very rarely used in Pompeiian funerary monuments, so archaeologists realized immediately that this could be something special. Because a new excavation was outside the parameters of the EU funding, they had to scrounge up 200,000 euros from the regular budget to dig the find site in anticipation of discovering something of significance. They were not disappointed.

The top of the tomb was lost, likely destroyed during the construction of the palazzo in hte 19th century, but what remains is a large and imposing marble structure that is unique among Pompeiian funerary monuments. The inscription carved into the marble facade is more than four meters (13 feet) long and has seven lines eulogizing the deceased’s life and successes. He was grand even as a teenager, we are assured, when he hosted a great banquet to celerate his donning of the toga virilis (“toga of manhood”) when he was 15-17 years old. He set up no fewer than 456 triclinia (formal dining rooms) to accomodate thousands of members of the public. Not content with merely feeding everyone, he treated them to games fielding 416 gladiators. We know from inscriptions and contemporary sources that no more than 30 pairs of gladiators fought in the regular games in Pompeii, so this figure is miles out of the ordinary, the kind of spectacle you’d see in Rome, not in a modest southern Italian colony.

Largess is a recurring theme in the res gestae of this prominet citizen. Other subjects covered in the inscription are his wedding and its extra fancy banquet, the political and religious offices he held, the many gladiatorial games and venationes (beast hunts) he sponsored, his generous gifts of silver coin to the people and moneys in support of magistrates and guilds. He was one of the duoviri quinquennales (the two heads of the city administration elected every five years with additional powers to update the census) and was acclaimed by the people as patronus of the city, which he humbly declines in the last line of the inscription because he is unworthy of so great an hour.

Inscription detail. Photo courtesy the Special Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Naples and Pompeii.Director General of the Pompeii archaeological site Massimo Osanna calls it the most important find of the last few decades, and one of the most important in the history of the site. He’s all but certain of the identity of the tomb’s occupant. The details in the biographical inscription, the luxuriousness of the monument and its location near the tombs of the Alleius family strongly suggest this was the final resting place of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius, duoviri quinquennales for 55-56 A.D. and an immensely rich and well-connected games impresario. No Pompeiian is better documented in the archaeological record. His name appears in 17 inscriptions, graffiti and edicts painted on the walls on the city.

One of the edicts painted on the facade of the house of A. Trebus Valens on the Via dell’Abbondanza advertises Maius’ latest gift to the people: “Twenty pairs of gladiators and their substitutes of the quinquennialis Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius will fight at Pompeii. No public monies will be used.” Illustrating that any excuse will do to throw a party, another edict on the Via dell’Abbondanza announces: “For the inauguration of the paintings on wood of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius, on June 13th, there will be a parade, a hunt of wild beasts, fighters, and the velarium.” Maius died a year before the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D.

He was very much a new man, a symbol of a society that was becoming increasingly mobile under the emperors of the 1st century. His father was a freedman who had made a fortune and had no bones about spending it on massively oversized celebrations to get his son started on a political career that would be largely based on throwing the biggest and best games in town. His humble beginnings were no deterrent to Maius’ ascent. He was a personal friend to the emperor Nero, and indeed, may have been involved in the resolution of one of Pompeii’s most explosive events before the literally explosive event that stopped the city in its tracks.

In 59 A.D., there was a giant and deadly brawl in the amphitheater between the local Pompeiians and the residents of nearby Nuceria, which had been a rival since Sulla’s conquest of Pompeii in 80 B.C. Old resentments were stirred up afresh when Nero gave some Pompeiian territories to Nuceria two years before the fight at the amphitheater. This likely played a part in things coming to blows that day, although it’s unknown exactly what sparked the conflict.

Tacitus described this riot in Book XIV of his Annals:

About the same time a trifling beginning led to frightful bloodshed between the inhabitants of Nuceria and Pompeii, at a gladiatorial show exhibited by Livineius Regulus, who had been, as I have related, expelled from the Senate. With the unruly spirit of townsfolk, they began with abusive language of each other; then they took up stones and at last weapons, the advantage resting with the populace of Pompeii, where the show was being exhibited. And so there were brought to Rome a number of the people of Nuceria, with their bodies mutilated by wounds, and many lamented the deaths of children or of parents. The emperor entrusted the trial of the case to the Senate, and the Senate to the consuls, and then again the matter being referred back to the Senators, the inhabitants of Pompeii were forbidden to have any such public gathering for ten years, and all associations they had formed in defiance of the laws were dissolved. Livineius and the others who had excited the disturbance, were punished with exile.

Before now, the Tacitus passage, a fresco in the house of Actius Anicetus and three graffiti found on walls at Pompeii were the only explicit references to the amphitheater riot of 59. The funerary inscription adds a key piece of information about this event. Thanks to the deceased’s personal relationship with Nero, he was able to persuade him to allow the two duoviri exiled as punishment for the brawl to return to Pompeii. This is the only reference to the duoviri having been exiled as well as the only reference to the intercessionary role Maius played. It opens up the possibility that he was involved in the softening and lifting of the 10-year ban on public events at the amphitheater. It’s known that some combat spectacles like animal hunts took place during the first three years of the ban, and it was lifted entirely in 62 A.D. to celebrate the restoration of the amphitheater after an earthquake.

Excavation of the tomb. Photo courtesy the Special Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Naples and Pompeii.There is no name recorded in the inscription. It was probably in a larger font on a higher panel on the tomb facade which is now lost. Archaeologists are still excavating so it’s possible we’ll receive absolute confirmation of whether this is in fact the tomb of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius. Meanwhile, the res gestae inscription on the tomb, the first of its kind ever found in Pompeii, make it as close to a sure thing as we can get.

Another first of its kind discovery was made at this remarkable site. Just in front of the tomb are two cart ruts embedded in a layer of stone debris two meters (6.5 feet) thick. The debris is from the rockfall phase of the eruption, and tracks were left by people fleeing the city. These are the first archaeological remains of Pompeiians mid-flight ever found.

This clip from the Italian television show Petrolio captures the discovery of the funerary inscription:

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Wheat residue found in Bronze Age lunch box

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

In 2012, a wooden box was exposed by melting glacier ice of the Lötschenpass, 2650 meters above sea level in the Bernese Alps. Round and about eight inches in diameter, the unusual box was made of three different kinds of wood: pine for the floor, willow for the curved side and spliced larch boughs for the seams joining floor to side. Radiocarbon testing found the box dates to the early Bronze Age, about 4,000 years ago.

The ice that preserved the wooden box for four millennia also preserved traces of its contents. An international team of researchers analyzed the residue expecting to find milk remnants, perhaps all that was left of a porridge type food. Samples of the residue were subjected to lipid and protein analysis. Researchers examined the samples using microscopic and molecular analysis to identify any lipids and gas chromatography mass spectrometry for the proteins, a combination of techniques commonly used to identify residue in ancient and prehistoric ceramic vessels which survive in far greater numbers than wooden ones.

The results were surprising. Instead of milk remnants, the team found alkylresorcinols, indicators of the presence of whole grains.

Dr André Colonese, from BioArCh, Department of Archaeology, University of York, said : “We didn’t find any evidence of milk, but we found these phenolic lipids, which have never been reported before in an archaeological artefact, but are abundant in the bran of wheat and rye cereals and considered biomarkers of wholegrain intake in nutritional studies”.

“This is an extraordinary discovery if you consider that of all domesticated plants, wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world and the most important food grain source for humans, lying at the core of many contemporary culinary traditions.

“One of the greatest challenges of lipid analysis in archaeology has been finding biomarkers for plants, there are only a few and they do not preserve very well in ancient artefacts. You can imagine the relevance of this study as we have now a new tool for tracking early culinary use of cereal grains, it really is very exciting. The next step is to look for them in ceramic artefacts,” Dr Colonese added.

If phenolic lipids can be identified in ceramic vessels as well, it opens up the possibility of tracing the use and spread of cereals at the dawn of agriculture, information that is currently non-existent.

Researchers can’t tell at this point how the wheat cultivars made their way into the Swiss Alps. Some of the valleys in the area are known to have been inhabited during the Bronze Age, and grave goods have been discovered in burials in the neighboring canton of Valais that were imports from north and south of the mountains. The Lötschenpass may have been part of a trade route linking the Bernese Highlands to the Valais. Or it may not have anything to do with trade, just a box lunch packed by a lone hiker on a hunt or a drover pasturing cattle at higher altitudes than archaeologists realized were being used for grazing during this period.

Dr Francesco Carrer, from Newcastle University, said: “This evidence sheds new light on life in prehistoric alpine communities, and on their relationship with the extreme high altitudes. People travelling across the alpine passes were carrying food for their journey, like current hikers do. This new research contributed to understanding which food they considered the most suitable for their trips across the Alps.”

The study on the identification of cereals in the Bronze Age box has been published in Scientific Reports and can be read here.

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Longhouse, Anglo-Saxon coin found at destroyed Pictish fort

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Burghead Fort near the town of Lossiemouth in Moray, northeastern Scotland, was a major power center in the early Pictish kingdom of Fortriu. Between 6th and 9th centuries, the promontory fort at the site of the modern town of Burghead dominated the region. It was the largest of its time, three times larger than any other fort in Scotland. It is also the oldest known Pictish fort.

Its true origin and great historical significance wasn’t understood in the early 19th century. The fort was believed to be Roman, “the Ultima Ptoroton of Richard of Cirencester and Alta Castra of Ptolemy,” as Major-General William Roy labelled it in his drawing of the floor plan and sections of what was left of the fort in 1793. You might think that its purported Roman origin and association with the 2nd century writer Ptolemy who was believed to have described it in his Geography would be sufficient to ensure some degree of preservation, but you would be wrong. More than half of the fort’s surviving remains were destroyed when the town of Burghead was built between 1805 and 1809.

Burghead Bull, British Museum. Photo by Ealdgyth.The orgy of destruction was entirely undeterred by the exceptional discovery of as many as 30 symbol stones engraved with realistic line art of bulls. Now known to be rare Pictish stones, most of them were casually reused as construction materials in the quay wall of the new harbour and are considered lost. Today only six of the Burghead Bulls survive, two in the Burghead visitor centre, the rest in the Elgin Museum, the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum. All that’s left of the Pictish fort above ground are some lengths of the earth and rubble inner ramparts and a snippet of one of the outer ramparts on the southern side. A subterranean ritual well in a rock-cut chamber discovered during utilities work in 1809 is the most intact remnant of the fort.

Archaeological digs at Burghead began in the late 19th century (less than a hundred years from “who cares?” obliteration to desperately seeking antiquity). They usually focused on the perimeter of the structure — the inner and outer ramparts, the defensive wall — and while the occasional artifact was found, the fort was generally considered to have been gutted beyond recovery by the construction of the town and harbour.

University of Aberdeen archaeologists have been excavating the site since 2015 and this season has seen remarkable discoveries: evidence of a Pictish longhouse and a late 9th century Anglo-Saxon coin of Alfred the Great. Pictish architectural remains are rare and there are major lacunae in our understanding of Pictish buildings. The longhouse gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to study the Picts’ living spaces within a great fort. The coin not only helped establish the dates for the occupation of the longhouse, but it is from a key transitional period when Viking raiders began savaging Pictish territories and would ultimately bring about the demise of Pictish kingdoms.

Dr Gordon Noble, Head of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, said: “The assumption has always been that there was nothing left at Burghead; that it was all trashed in the 19th century but nobody’s really looked at the interior to see if there’s anything that survives inside the fort.

“But beneath the 19th century debris, we have started to find significant Pictish remains. We appear to have found a Pictish longhouse. This is important because Burghead is likely to have been one of the key royal centres of Northern Pictland and understanding the nature of settlement within the fort is key to understanding how power was materialised within these important fortified sites.

“There is a lovely stone-built hearth in one end of the building and the Anglo-Saxon coin shows the building dates towards the end of the use of the fort based on previous dating. The coin is also interesting as it shows that the fort occupants were able to tap into long-distance trade networks. The coin is also pierced, perhaps for wearing; it shows that the occupants of the fort in this non-monetary economy literally wore their wealth.

“Overall these findings suggest that there is still valuable information that can be recovered from Burghead which would tell us more about this society at a significant time for northern Scotland – just as Norse settlers were consolidating their power in Shetland and Orkney and launching attacks on mainland Scotland.”

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