Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Remains of Celtic settlement found in Lucerne

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

An archaeological survey at the site of a housing development in Egolzwil, Switzerland, has discovered rare remains of a Celtic settlement. Canton archaeologists excavating the site about 20 miles northwest of Lucerne unearthed evidence of a Celtic-era street and dwelling, the first traces of an actual Celtic settlement discovered in the canton. Before this discovery, the only material evidence of Celts having lived in the area were sacrificial remains found at what used to be the Wauwilersee lakeshore.

Wauwilersee, a glacier lake that was drained in the mid-19th century to reclaim the boggy land for agricultural purposes, was the site of one of the earliest human settlements in Switzerland. Remains have been found going back to the late Paleolithic (ca. 12,000 B.C.) and Neolithic pile dwelling settlements have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s this rich density of material culture dating back thousands of years that spurred the survey before construction of three semi-detaches houses on the Egolzwil-Baumgarten rail line.

The settlement remains were found on a hill overlooking the former Wauwilersee shore. The dig found a pathway about 13 feet wide made of small, compacted pebbles and the remains of a house that had burned down. It’s not known whether the path was a road linking locations within the settlement or if it was a stretch of a larger road that connected Egolzwil to the nearby town of Schötz. Most of the archaeological material unearthed consists of potsherds, small stones from the pathway, larger round stones used in construction of the dwelling and scorched fragments of the house’s clay walls. One stand-out artifact is a bronze fibula, a large pin used to secure garments together. It is of a type commonly dating to the 1st century B.C.

Very little is known about the Celtic period (ca. 800-15 B.C.) in the canton of Lucerne which is why this dig, so small in surface area, is so large in historical significance. That the house was burned down in the 1st century B.C. is particularly intriguing because of the potential connection to the events recorded by Julius Caesar in the opening of Gallic War. It all starts with Orgetorix, the richest and most powerful leader of the Helvetii (the varied, loose confederation of Celtic peoples in the Swiss Plateau) who in 61 B.C. persuades other leaders to head for larger and greener pastures by invading Gaul. Orgetorix never did his dream of war come true because his compatriots turned on him, afraid he would make himself king. He died (possibly by suicide) while on trial. That didn’t stop them from going through with the whole Gaul plan, though. In 58 B.C., they lit the match on the tinderbox that became the Gallic War.

When they thought that they were at length prepared for this undertaking, they set fire to all their towns, in number about twelve-to their villages about four hundred-and to the private dwellings that remained; they burn up all the corn, except what they intend to carry with them; that after destroying the hope of a return home, they might be the more ready for undergoing all dangers. They order every one to carry forth from home for himself provisions for three months, ready ground. They persuade the Rauraci, and the Tulingi, and the Latobrigi, their neighbors, to adopt the same plan, and after burning down their towns and villages, to set out with them: and they admit to their party and unite to themselves as confederates the Boii, who had dwelt on the other side of the Rhine, and had crossed over into the Norican territory, and assaulted Noreia.

Noricum, believed to be in modern-day Austria, was a long-time Roman ally, provider of a great deal of the army’s weapons and tools. In return, Roman forces had defended it against Germanic incursions since the early 2nd century B.C. The Helvetian invasion triggered Caesar’s response, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, there is a general possibility that the Celtic house was burned down when the Helvetii arsoned themselves out of a homeland to ensure there would be no going back, but there’s no evidence of this fire having been part of the exodus. It could simply have been an accidental house fire like any other. More investigation will have to be done.

The excavation will only continue through the end of the month. With no time and no money to extend the dig, the site will be infilled for now for its own protection. Archaeologists plan to return when they have the wherewithal to excavate the site further.

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October 79 AD date found on Pompeii wall

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

A charcoal date scribbled on the wall of a villa in Pompeii that was undergoing renovations when it was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. is the most precise contemporary evidence yet that the traditional date of the destruction of Pompeii, August 24th, is off by months. The note is dated the 16th day before the Kalends of November (November 1st), which would have been October 17th. There is no year, but the inscription wasn’t meant to be permanent. It was written in charcoal on a white wall that was probably going to be frescoed over as part of a renovation of the home and even if it hadn’t been painted, the charcoal would have quickly faded. That’s why archaeologists are so sure it was left in 79 A.D.

The source of the August date for the eruption is Pliny the Younger. It’s found in a letter written to his friend the historian Tacitus three decades after he witnessed Vesuvius’ fury destroy Pompeii, but the date has been questioned since the early days of Pompeiian archaeology. The discovery of organic remains of autumnal produce like pomegranates, chestnuts, grapes and of heating braziers in homes suggested the city had not been destroyed in the sweltering heat of a southern Italian August. One silver coin also provided strong evidence of a fall date. Minted by the Emperor Titus in 79 A.D., the coin is inscribed with a list of the emperor’s titles one of which notes he was acclaimed imperator 15 times. Titus’ 15th acclamation as emperor took place on September 8th.

So if the eruption took place in October, how to explain Pliny’s letter to Tacitus describing it as having happened in August? He barely escaped a cataclysm that destroyed multiple cities and claimed his uncle’s life. It’s not the sort of thing you’re likely to get so wrong, even 30 years after the event. The answer is transcription errors. Pliny’s original correspondence has not survived, obviously. The text has come down to us in various states of completion from copyists and, like a game of telephone, mistakes get transmitted and even amplified over the centuries. It’s easy to see how scribes might have confused September (the ninth month of the Julian calendar) with November (the ninth month in the ancient Roman 10-month calendar as indicated by the prefix “nov”).

Ancient sources are never as cut and dried as we might wish. There are inconsistencies with the archaeological record and even among the extant manuscripts. The August date comes from the most complete surviving copy of the letter which refers to the “nonum kal. septembres” (nine days before kalends of Septembe), not from all of them. Other copies of Pliny’s letters, including one now in the Girolamini Library in Naples, refer to the kalends of November, three days before the kalends of November and nine days before the kalends (month missing but was probably also November).

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Farmer finds 1,500-year-old farming tools

Monday, October 15th, 2018


A set of 1,500-year-old agricultural and carpentry tools have been discovered in the ancient Green city of Alexandria Troas on the Aegean coast of northwestern Turkey. The cache was discovered by accident by a farmer. He found earthenware pithos, a massive storage vessel, dating to the 5th-6th century A.D., in a field he owns that includes part of the ancient city wall.

A pithos alone would have been an exciting artifact. It proved to be geometrically more exciting when it was found to contain iron and bronze tools used for agriculture, carpentry and the making of other tools. The objects include sickles, soil scrapers, weed cutters, soil tampers, plows, long nails, and hand tools like saws, grinders, drills and spatula scrapers. The tools date to the late Roman, early Byzantine era, the 5th century A.D., and were stored in the pithos for centuries.

Founded around 306 B.C. as Antigonia Troas, the city was renamed after Alexander of Macedon in 301 B.C. and rose to become a prosperous port town under the Roman Republic and Empire. It had a population of around 100,000 at its peak and was a major port for trade and transportation between Asia Minor and Europe. Paul of Tarsus used it as a departure and arrival point on his travels to Europe and back. Its importance faded under the Byzantine Empire as the harbour silted up, but it was significant enough to remain the see of a bishopric until its abandonment some time in the Middle Ages.

[Ankara University archaeology professor and excavation leader Dr. Erhan] Oztepe said it is the most interesting finding of 2018. “Iron and Bronze [Age] agricultural and carpentry tools show us the economy of the ancient city and farming activities in the Alexandria Troas and nearby regions of the Early Byzantine period,” he said.

Kemal Dokuz, the head of Provincial Directorate of Culture and Tourism, highlighted the importance of the ancient site for tourism. “St. Paul stayed in this city and this place is as important as Ephesus to the Christian world. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has spent $1 million [$170,165] on Alexandria Troas excavations within the last 5 years,” he added.

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New ritual objects found in ancient Santorini public building

Sunday, October 14th, 2018

Excavation of a prehistoric structure in the Bronze Age city Akrotiri on the Greek Cycladic island of Santorini has unearthed new evidence of ritual activity. The building, known as the House of Thrania, was an important place in its day. In 1999 a golden goat was found there inside a clay urn accompanied by a number of horns, a deposit that suggests a ritual purpose. Archaeologists believe the House of Thrrani was not a personal dwelling, but rather a public building and the most recent discoveries support that hypothesis.

The excavation of the northwest corner of the space revealed, in successive chronological layers from oldest to most recent, first a group of clay amphorae and then rectangular clay shrines covered with clay lids. After careful investigation of one of the rectangles, archaeologists found a marble protocycladic female figurine placed diagonally across the bottom of the shrine.

In the southeast corner of the room, the team unearthed three more rectangular clay shrines. The two smaller ones contained a mass of clay in an oval configuration. The largest contained four vessels, two pre-Cycladic marble vases placed upside down, one marble vase placed right-side up and one made of alabaster also placed right-side up.

The ongoing research in Akrotiri on Santorini gradually has revealed a place of rituals, very close to Xesti 3, an important public building with rich fresco decorations on the southern boundary of the settlement.

According to archaeologists, the excavation finds are undoubtedly related to the perceptions and beliefs of the ancient society of Thera — as is the official name of Santorini — and generate essential questions about the ideology and possibly the religion of that prehistoric Aegean society.

Akotiri’s Bronze Age society was a Minoan colony, the best preserved Minoan city outside of Crete. It was destroyed and preserved in one fell swoop by the eruption of Thera in the mid-second millennium B.C., one of the most cataclysmic volcanic events in the history of the earth. It was that world-shattering eruption that kept Xesti 3’s frescoes in such vibrant color and that kept all the ritual clay vessels and their contents largely intact underneath the destruction layer.

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Child “vampire burial” found in Roman cemetery

Saturday, October 13th, 2018

An international team of archaeologists has unearthed the skeletal remains of a child with a rock inserted into its mouth in a 5th century cemetery in the central Italian region of Umbria. Led by University of Arizona archaeologist David Soren who has been excavating the cemetery in the municipality of Lugnano since 1987, archaeologists from Stanford University and Italy discovered the unusual burial this summer. The body was found inhumed in a sort of lean-to grave created by propping two large roof tiles against a wall, a style characteristic of Roman Italy. The articulated skeleton had been placed on its side and its jaw was wide open. It could not have fallen open like that naturally when the body was on its side, and the stone had teeth marks on the surface indicating it was intentionally placed between the jaws during burial.

Stones deliberately the placed in the mouth are believed to be ritual gestures meant to contain the danger posed by a corpse from the spread of infectious disease or from the dead themselves rising from the grave to plague (literally and metaphorically) the living. That’s why they’re known as “vampire burials” even when they bear no specific connection to the vampire legends per se.

A deadly outbreak of malaria swept the area in the mid-5th century. Children and infants were especially hard hit, and the cemetery was likely dedicated to the interral of the young victims. Because of its sadly vulnerable population, it is called “La Necropoli dei Bambini” (the Necropolis of the Children). It was the site of a 1st century B.C. Roman villa, an elite country home that had long since been abandoned by the time malaria struck in the 5th century claiming the lives of so many children. DNA testing of several of the bones unearthed in the cemetery confirms the presence of malaria. The ten-year-old’s bones have not been DNA-tested yet, but he or she did have an abscess in one tooth, a common side-effect of malaria.

Until now, archaeologists believed the cemetery was designated specifically for infants, toddlers and unborn fetuses; in previous excavations of more than 50 burials, a 3-year-old girl was the oldest child found.

The discovery of the 10-year-old, whose age was determined based on dental development but whose sex is unknown, suggests that the cemetery may have been used for older children as well, said bioarcheologist Jordan Wilson, a UA doctoral student in anthropology who analyzed the skeletal remains in Italy.

“There are still sections of the cemetery that we haven’t excavated yet, so we don’t know if we’ll find other older kids,” Wilson said.

Excavation director David Pickel, who has a master’s degree in classical archaeology from the UA and is now a doctoral student at Stanford, said the discovery has the potential to tell researchers much more about the devastating malaria epidemic that hit Umbria nearly 1,500 years ago, as well as the community’s response to it.

“Given the age of this child and its unique deposition, with the stone placed within his or her mouth, it represents, at the moment, an anomaly within an already abnormal cemetery,” Pickel said. “This just further highlights how unique the infant — or now, rather, child — cemetery at Lugnano is.”

There is other evidence in the cemetery that the survivors enlisted magical ritual to counter the child-killing epidemic. Infants and toddlers were buried with talismans like raven talons, toad bones and bronze cauldrons containing the burned remains of sacrificed puppies. The three-year-old girl, the oldest child found in the cemetery before the most recent discovery, was buried with stones weighing down her hands and feet, another practice meant to keep the dead from rising.

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Prehistoric cave art revealed by water level drop in Turkey

Friday, October 12th, 2018

Fishermen have discovered ancient rock art on the shore of the Atatürk reservoir near Adıyaman, southeastern Turkey. Water levels in the reservoir have dropped around 10-15 meters (32-49 feet), exposing the low part of a cliff face that has been underwater since at least 1990 when the dam was completed.

The art spotted is an expansive tableau of carved drawings more than eight meters (26 feet) long and two feet wide. The carvings, created using an etching method, include human and animal figures underscored by linear motifs believed to represent a settlement on a slope. Animals depicted include mountain goats, horses, wolves, foxes, storks and a variety of indeterminate shapes. There are at least two hunting scenes, one including images of people armed with bows and arrows hunting wild goats and another with men on horses chasing a chevrotain, an extremely cute striped ungulate more commonly known as mouse-deer.

The size of the tableau and the richness of the animal and human life depicted are of particular interest to scientists. The carvings are in excellent condition, undiminished by so many years covered by water, which gives researchers the opportunity to learn more about prehistoric life in the area. The location is also significant and it is likely to have held religious meaning to the carvers.

The rock art dates at least to the Paleolithic era, but may be even older. Experts believe they may have been carved as far back as 2.6 million years ago. The carvings will be studied further as long as they are exposed. They will remain in situ even when the water returns to its previous level and covers it. The water didn’t damage it before, indeed, it helped preserve it.

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Twice-stolen Persian bas-relief returns to Iran

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

An ancient Persian bas-relief that has been stolen twice in two places across the world from each other has returned to Iran. It is a carved slab of limestone eight inches square depicting a curly-bearded “Immortal” (imperial guard) from the Achaemenid dynasty. He was one of a long line of soldier reliefs arrayed in precise formation on a balustrade besides the steps of Persepolis’ main building. They were carved between 510 and 330 B.C.

The bas-relief was discovered in Persepolis in a 1933 excavation of the site by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Contemporary photographs show the relief in situ, part of a line of imperial soldiers. Photographs show it still in place and untouched at least up to 1936. After that it vanished, reappearing 15 years later in the hands of French antiquities dealer and expert in Mediterranean sculpture Paul Mallon. Mallon sold it to Canadian department store heir and collector Frederick Cleveland Morgan for a comparative pittance ($1,000). Morgan donated the relief to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the 1950s. It was on display there for six decades.

It was stolen again in September 2011 when a man wearing jeans, a dark jacket and a baseball cap casually walked into the museum in broad daylight and walked out with the Persian relief and a 1st century Roman marble head of a man. The brazen crime was never solved, but the bas relief was found in January of 2014 in the Edmonton home of a collector who claimed he thought it was a replica when he bought it from “a friend of a friend” for $1400 Canadian.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts decided to keep the $950,000 insurance payout it received after the theft and let its insurer, AXA, keep the title to the relief. AXA sold it to British antiquities dealer Rupert Wace. In October 2017, Wace offered the piece for sale for $1.2 million at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). There it was, exposed to some of New York City’s deepest pockets, when the cops and city prosecutors waltzed in and seized it. The vociferous protests of the dealers — apparently the language got a tad bluer than the TEFAF crowd is accustomed to — fell on deaf ears.

Wace and his partner were shocked because the relief had been published and displayed extensively for 80 years, long before the 1970 UNESCO convention cutoff on the illegal export of cultural artifacts, but the Manhattan district attorney’s office was acting on evidence that the relief had been stolen after Persian passed the Cultural Heritage Protection Act in 1930 prohibiting the export of such artifacts.

The Manhattan DA created a full timeline of tracing the location and ownership history of the relief. Their contention was that nobody could own stolen property “in good faith” because there is no valid title to transfer in a sale and because the buyer should do his due diligence in ascertaining the reality of an object’s provenance instead of relying on conjecture. In this case, dealers said they just assumed the bas-relief had been looted from Persepolis in the 19th century. They had no evidence to support that hypothesis nor did they make any effort to determine its veracity.

In July of this year, a New York Supreme Court judge ordered that the relief be repatriated to Iran. After some negotiations, the London dealers agreed to fork it over. As of this week, the relief is back on Persian soil.

“It now belongs to the people who made it in the first place, and who are now going to preserve it, and is part of their identity,” Firouzeh Sepidnameh, director of the ancient history section of the National Museum told AFP on Tuesday.

The limestone relief was handed over to Iran’s representative at the United Nations last month and was personally brought back to Iran by President Hassan Rouhani, returning from the UN General Assembly.

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Intact grave found in looted Mycenaean cemetery

Saturday, October 6th, 2018

Archaeologists excavating the widely plundered Mycenaean-era cemetery in Aidonia, outside of Nemea in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece have discovered a fully intact, undisturbed tomb from the Early Mycenean period (1650-1400 B.C.). The ellipsoid chamber tomb is one of the largest ever found in Aidonia, measuring more than 20 feet at its widest points.

The cemetery was first discovered by looters in 1976 who plundered it with such ferocity that gun fights broke out between rival looting gangs. Local authorities were bribed and priceless archaeological treasures were secretly smuggled out of Greece, including stuffed in watermelons. When Greece put guards on the site and official excavations began in 1978, the looting petered off (although there is evidence that new tombs were plundered in the early 2000s).

During those first excavations, 20 chamber tombs were found, 18 of them stripped bare by looters. The tombs were carved out of living rock and were consistent in design. They had three sections: the road leading to the tomb, the opening or entranceway and the burial chamber. Inside the burial chamber were multiple pits dug into the floor and covered with large stone slabs. These are where bodies were interred with their grave goods, often a rich assemblage of pottery, precious metals and jewelry.

The newly-discovered tomb has four large pits carved into the floor, each covered with megalithic slabs. The earliest of the burials included clay tableware and storage vessels. They were decorated with stylized representations of plant and marine life, motifs typical of the “Palace Style” believed to be descended from Cretan art at Knossos. Archaeologists also discovered copper knives and swords, copper, obsidian and pyrite arrowheads, jewelry, an amethyst and gold bead necklaces, pins and seal stones.

The tomb continued to be used into the late Mycenaean period (ca. 1400-1200 B.C.) when the deceased were interred on the floor of the tomb rather than in carved pits. These were more simple burials with little in the way of grave goods. The collapse of the stone roof of the tomb ended its reuse for new burials and obscured its location thereby protecting it from interference, not just from modern-day looters, but from successive occupiers of the site from the Classical period through the Roman Empire through the Late Byzantine. They all used the cemetery (not knowing that’s what it was) and built over the tomb. The subsequent deposits helped keep it safe, its contents intact for archaeologists to discover.

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Enchanted garden of frescoes unearthed at Pompeii

Friday, October 5th, 2018

The excavation of Pompeii’s Regio V section has unearthed a house with an exquisite series of frescoes and a large shrine, one of the largest ever found in Pompeii. It is being called “the house of the enchanted garden” because of the rich wall paintings which retain their vibrant colors and have suffered surprisingly little damage from being buried in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in 79 A.D.

The only part of the house that has been excavated so far is the entrance, an open garden space where the lararium, a shrine to the guardian spirits of the household (the lares), was located in the center of riot of frescoed beauty. On each side of the shrine are green plants with small birds hovering over them and alighting on the branches. Under the lararium is a pair of large, sinuous snakes, wound around leafy plants, facing each other with their heads raised. Between them is an altar with a pinecone, a symbol of eternal life. Underneath the snakes is a garden scene with peacocks and yellow flowers (daffodils?).

To the right of the lararium wall is a fresco painted against a full-coverage brilliant red background. In a remarkable dynamic scene, a black wild boar is attacked by a variety of gold and white animals — dogs and what appear to be dear and a horse. Next to it, across from the lararium, is another Pompeiian red wall painted with floral motifs. Another peacock stands proudly against a yellow ochre background.

Snakes are often depicted in lararia because they were considered protectors of the home. The well-known lararium in the House of the Vetti depicts the lares, the genius (the spirit of the paterfamilias) and serpent winding under the three of them. Like the House of the Vetti’s lararium, the newly-discovered one is built to resemble a small temple affixed to the wall. The Vetti shrine’s temple framework is stucco carved with Corinthian columns and a pediment with a highly decorative frieze, but no paint is extant.

The temple surround of the enchanted garden’s lararium, on the other hand, is painted in deep red hues with vertical stripes, swirls, floral garlands and triangles on the columns and pediment. On each side of the central niche are lares, also painted red. The niche’s background, if it had one, is lost. At the foot of the shrine is a terracotta vessel that still contains the burned remains of an offerings, perhaps even the final desperate attempt of the homeowners to petition for rescue from Vesuvius’ wrath during the pumice fall that preceded the final destruction of the pyroclastic flows.

That very moment is captured poignantly by a less overtly glamorous part of the house: a window, its iron grate still intact. Behind the grate are pumice rocks. They fill every nook and cranny of the space, mute witnesses to that first stage of the eruption in which the rain of stone poured in through windows and doorways until the interiors were crammed with stones. This beautiful garden was no exception. When the room up to the top of the window was filled with lapilli, the stones filled the space above the window ledge.

Archaeologists will continue to excavate this splendid domus which has at least two more rooms to explore. They will also dig into a small well found at the base of the lararium wall. It’s filled with stones from the eruption now, but wells can be archaeological treasure chests because people toss all kinds of things in them and the water helps preserve them.

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8-year-old girl finds Iron Age sword in a Swedish lake

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

Saga Vanecek was skipping rocks at her family’s summer home on the shores of Vidöstern lake in Tånnö, southern Sweden, when she spotted something metallic in the shallow water. She pulled it out and saw that it had a hilt and a pointy end and hollered to her father that she’d found a sword. She had indeed, but Saga had little idea just how proud she’d done her name.

Her family contacted archaeologist Annie Rosén at Jönköping County Museum. She determined that it dates to the Iron Age and is at least 1,000 years old, probably closer to 1,500 years old. The sword is rusted from many centuries under water and will need conservation, but even so museum experts have been able to discern that it is a metal and wood sword in very good condition.

“It’s about 85 centimentres [33.5 inches] long, and there is also preserved wood and metal around it,” explained Mikael Nordström from the museum. “We are very keen to see the conservation staff do their work and see more of the details of the sword.”

Anyone hoping to see the sword will have to wait at least a year, Nordström told The Local, explainig [sic]: “The conservation process takes quite a long time because it’s a complicated environment with wood and leather, so they have several steps to make sure it’s preserved for the future.”

“Why it has come to be there, we don’t know,” he said. “When we searched a couple of weeks ago, we found another prehistoric object; a brooch from around the same period as the sword, so that means – we don’t know yet – but perhaps it’s a place of sacrifice. At first we thought it could be graves situated nearby the lake, but we don’t think that any more.”

Meanwhile, Saga has become the toast of her class, and she more than deserves after keeping her fantastic find secret for months. Museum archaeologists asked her to bite her tongue so they could explore the lake without having to fend off treasure hunters.

Saga confirmed to The Local that the only person she told was her best friend, who she really trusts. Thursday was the first day she could reveal her story to her classmates, and her teacher threw a party to celebrate, handing out ice creams and showing Saga’s TV and radio interviews to the class.

“They thought that it was very fun and interesting to know about my story,” said Saga.

I hope I could have been as discrete as she is when I was eight, but I’m pretty sure I would have blabbed. I doff my cap at thee, Saga.

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