Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Peruvian child mummy X-rayed in Texas hospital

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

An ancient Peruvian mummy that has been part of the collection of the Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science for 60 years received its first X-ray yesterday at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. Very little is known about the mummy which was removed from Peru by unknown (illegal?) means at an unknown time. It has been at the museum since it opened in 1957, a gift from New York’s American Museum of Natural History via its former employee and the Corpus Christi Museum’s first director, Aalbert Heine. The mummy was one of many ancient artifacts and remains Heine brought to the new museum, accession number 137 in a collection that now counts in the millions.

There are no records extant of the mummy at the Museum of Natural History. The Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science’s tag labels it the mummy of an Inca child approximately 2,000 years old. As the Inca Empire is nowhere near that old (the civilization’s origin story places its founding in the 13th century), the label is drastically off-base. It is wrapped in a coiled rope that looks like a basket but isn’t. The only other potential source of information about the mummy are a few textile fragments that have somehow managed to remain on her body, but they have yielded no more answers so far.

Attitudes towards the display of human remains have changed over the years as the anthropological approach shifted from treating people like curios to respect for the dead (and living, for that matter) within their cultural context. The mummy was removed from display in the 1980s and has been kept in storage ever since. Last year, collections manager Jillian Becquet and assistant curator of education Madeleine Fontenot began to investigate the history of the mummy with the aim of repatriating it to its homeland. After extensive research in the museum archives, newspaper records and scrapbooks, the two had little new information to show for it.

Enter the Driscoll Children’s Hospital. An X-ray might reveal important information that would confirm its Peruvian provenance, an essential step in the repatriation process.

“She was not my average patient!” said Suzi Beckwith, Diagnostic X-ray Coordinator at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. […]

“Because of the size of the mummy, I thought it was a baby,” Beckwith said. “But looking at the X-rays, you see her legs are actually tucked in. So she’s not a baby. She’s a little girl.

X-rays can confirm gender, age, and even cause of death.

“We’re looking for things that can help us give information to anthropologists in Peru, and then hopefully confirm cultural group that she belongs to, said Jillian Becquet, Collections Manager at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.

The burial position confirmed by the X-rays could be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Different cultural groups buried their dead in different positions, so experts could determine her origins from that alone. Examination of her bones could pinpoint injuries, healed, peri-mortem or post-mortem.

The museum is working with Peruvian Embassy officials to identify the mummy and arrange for her return. Fontenot and Becquet hope Peruvian experts can learn more about her by studying the rope that binds her and the fragments of cloth. They’re not at that stage yet, however. Before they decide whether to invest in that kind of research, Peruvian officials will study the X-rays and documentation to see if the mummy is a likely candidate for repatriation to Peru. The more data they have, the more securely they will be able to claim her as their own.

“Whatever group was around her chose to do this very caring thing, to wrap her purposefully and bury her,” Becquet said. “Somebody along the way disrespected that, and so we want that to be restored.”

When this little mummy is returned to the land of her ancestors, the Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science will have no people left languishing in its storage cabinets. She is the last one.

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Indian manuscript with zero symbol far older than realized

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Researchers have discovered that an ancient Indian manuscript is far older than previously realized and therefore contains the earliest known example of the symbol for zero as it is used today. The Bakhshali manuscript, written on 70 delicate leaves of birch bark, was discovered buried in a field near Peshawar in 1881. Indologist AFR Hoernle bought it from the farmer who found it and in 1902 gifted it to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford where it is kept in the rare books collection.

Replete with Sanskrit numerals, including many instances of the small dot that is the ancestor of our zero, the manuscript is believed to have been written by Silk Road merchants practicing math rather than being a philosophical or scholarly work. Its age has long been subject to debate among scholars and the best guesses, based on factors like writing style and the mathematical concepts it convers, put it between the 8th and 12th century.

University researchers hoped radiocarbon testing would provide an absolute date and answer some of these long-standing questions. They were astounded when several of the pages turned out to date between 200 and 400 A.D. Before now, the zero dot on the wall of the Ganesh temple at the 9th century Gwalior Fort in Madhya Pradesh, India, was believed to be the oldest visual representation of the ancestor of the modern zero numeral. Researchers expected the Bakshali manuscript to date to around the same time as the depiction in the temple.

The zero symbol that we use today evolved from a dot that was used in ancient India and can be seen throughout the Bakhshali manuscript. The dot was originally used as a ‘placeholder’, meaning it was used to indicate orders of magnitude in a number system – for example, denoting 10s, 100s and 1000s.

In this close-up image of folio 16v, you can see the use of a dot as a placeholder in the bottom line. This dot evolved into the use of zero as a number in its own right. Photo courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.While the use of zero as a placeholder was seen in several different ancient cultures, such as among the ancient Mayans and Babylonians, the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today – this happened in 628 AD, just a few centuries after the Bakhshali manuscript was produced, when the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, which is the first document to discuss zero as a number.

The reason for the confusion about its date is that the birch pages date to three different periods, hence the range of styles and arithmetic.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, said:

‘Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world. But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.

‘We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.’

The Bodleian will loan one folio from the Bakhshali manuscript to the Science Museum in London for its upcoming Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation exhibition. This is the first time any part of the manuscript has been loaned to another institution and a unique opportunity to see a seminal piece of mathematical history alongside other important of India’s contributions to the history of math, science and technology. It runs from October 4th, 2017, through March 31st, 2018.

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Oldest royal tomb of Centipede dynasty found in Guatemala

Sunday, September 17th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the ancient Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ have discovered the oldest known royal tomb of the Wak or Centipede dynasty. The international team from the El Perú-Waka’ Archaeological Project (PAW) found the tomb excavating tunnels under the Palace Acropolis. Analysis of the ceramic grave goods date the tomb to 300-350 A.D. Going from the date alone, the deceased could be King Te’ Chan Ahk who ruled in the early 4th century.

The skeletal remains of an adult male were found inside the tomb, but there were no inscriptions that would conclusively prove his identity. One artifact did make it clear that this was a royal tomb: a jade funerary mask. The portrait mask, painted a bright red with cinnabar, has a tell-tale hair tab on the forehead characteristic of the Maize God. There’s a symbol on the tab reminscent of a Greek Cross which is a combination of the glyphs for “Yellow” and “Precious,” another reference to the corn deity.

[Guatemalan archaeologists Griselda Pérez Robles and Damaris Menéndez] discovered the mask under the head of the ruler, and it may have been made to cover the face rather than as a chest pectoral. Archaeologists at Tikal in the 1960s discovered a similar greenstone mask in the earliest Maya royal tomb, dating to the first century A.D.

Additional offerings in Burial 80 included 22 ceramic vessels, Spondylus shells, jade ornaments and a shell pendant carved as a crocodile. The remains of the ruler and some ornaments like the portrait mask were painted bright red. Burial 80 was reverentially reentered after 600 A.D. at least once, and it is possible that the bones were painted during this reentry.

El Perú-Waka’ was an important city-state that controlled major north-south and east-west trade routes during the Mayan classical period. It produced a wide range of goods for trade — maize avocados, latex, jade — and its support was hungrily sought after by the greatest rivals of the time: Tikal and Calakmul. The north-south trade route linked the great Classical period Mayan power center of Calakmul in modern-day Campeche, Mexico, with its allies to the south in what is today Guatemala. The rulers of Calakmul, the mighty Snake dynasty, cemented their relationships with the rulers of conquered, vassal and allied cities in strategically significant areas by marriage. Lady K’abel, aka Lady Snake Lord, daughter of King Yuhknoom Ch’een the Great of Calakmul, married King K’inich Bahlam II of the Centipede dynasty in the 7th century.

The Wak dynasty long predates the rise of Calakmul and its military and political machinations, however. Drawing from later inscriptions found at El Perú-Waka’, historians believe the dynasty was founded in the 2nd century A.D. making it one of the earliest Mayan ruling families. By the early 5th century A.D., the city’s population numbered in the tens of thousands and the city had dozens of public buildings, squares, religious centers and more. That was the heyday of the city’s prosperity, even though its alliance with Calakmul and the benefits it incurred from the relationship were still hundreds of years away.

“The Classic Maya revered their divine rulers and treated them as living souls after death,” said research co-director David Freidel, professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“This king’s tomb helped to make the royal palace acropolis holy ground, a place of majesty, early in the history of the Wak — centipede — dynasty. It’s like the ancient Saxon kings England buried in Old Minister, the original church underneath Winchester Cathedral.”

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Met acquires splendid gilded Egyptian coffin

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired an exceptional gilded cartonnage coffin from Late Ptolemaic Period Egypt. Cartonnage was made of layers of linen or papyrus plastered together to create a material that when wet could be molded into a desired shape and then dried into a hard shell. The hardened shell was then painted or gilded, more frequently the former than the latter. Cartonnage funerary masks and sarcophagi were used in Egypt from the First Intermediate Period (2181–2055 B.C.) well into the Roman era.

Molded into a mummiform shape, the coffin was made between 150 and 50 B.C. to hold the remains of one Nedjemankh. He was a priest of Heryshef, a fertility god depicted with the head of a ram, in Heracleopolis Magna. The city had been the cult center of Heryshef since the third millennium B.C. and the Ptolemies, keen to associate their Greek religious traditions with the ancient Egypt pantheon, declared Heryshaf the equivalent of Herakles and renamed the city to match.

The recently-acquired coffin is a spectacular example of a very high status cartonnage artifact, even unique in several ways. It is composed of layers ofa linen, gesso and resin and decorated with gold, silver and glass. The lid is covered with scenes of funerary spells and one long inscription referring to the gold and silver that are so prominently displayed in the coffin itself. Inside the lid is an image of the sky goddess Nut adorned with silver foil. The base of the coffin is decorated with a djed pillar, symbol of stability and the creator god Osiris.

Unique to this coffin are the thin sheets of silver foil on the interior of the lid, intended to protect Nedjemankh’s face. To the ancient Egyptians, the precious metals gold and silver symbolized several things. On a general level, they could represent the flesh and bones of the gods, or the sun and the moon; on a more specific level, they were identified with the eyes of the cosmic deity Heryshef, whom Nedjemankh served.

Even more remarkably, the long inscription on the front of the coffin’s lid explicitly connects gold and “fine gold” (electrum) to the flesh of the gods, the sun, and the rebirth of the deceased. The association of the inscription with the actual use of metals on the coffin is a rare — possibly unique — occurrence.

Perhaps even rarer than the beauty, condition and quality of the cartonnage coffin is that it was actually legally exported. No fraudulent “private Swiss collection,” no forged documents, no fake history ginned up by sellers seeking to justify a sudden appearance on the market in the 90s. Instead, there is a full ownership record and legal paperwork proving that it was exported from Egypt in 1971 with a license from the authorities. Believe it or not, it was bought by a real Swiss private collector from the shop of Cairo dealer Habib Tawadrus. (This is the first time I can recall seeing the Swiss private collector be an actual flesh-and-blood human instead of a convenient fiction to cover the widespread flouting of cultural patrimony laws in the antiquities trade.) The coffin has remained in the owner’s family until the Metropolitan bought it from them this year.

It is now on display in the Met’s Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries for Egyptian Art.

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One of largest Mycenaean tombs found in Greece

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered one of the largest tombs of the Mycenaean era in Orchomenos, Greece. The burial chamber is an estimated 3,350 years old, dating to the 14th century B.C. and is the ninth-largest Mycenaean chamber tomb of the 4,000 known to have been excavated in the last century and a half.

It is of monumental scale, with a road 20 meters (66 feet) long carved of out of stone leading into the tomb. The burial chamber is a single large room 42 square meters (452 square feet) in surface area. The walls were topped by a stone roof that was originally around 3.5 meters (11 feet) high. That figure is an estimate because the roof collapse in antiquity, perhaps even shortly after it was constructed in the Mycenaean era.

The cave-in damaged some of the artifacts and human remains inside the tomb, but it also saved it from a far worse danger than architectural failure or natural disaster: human beings. Covered by the collapsed pile of rocks, the tomb was hidden from looters and from well-meaning people who might seek to reuse the tomb, a very common practice in ancient Greece. That makes this find extremely valuable to archaeologists, because they can learn so much about a single identified point on the timeline without concern that later interventions have contaminated the scene. It will be one of the best documented Mycenaean tombs ever found on the Greek mainland.

The remains discovered inside the tomb are of an adult male, about 40-50 years old. He was buried with a selection of expensive and meaningful objects: more than 10 tin vessels, a pair of bronze hooks from horseshoes, bow fittings, arrows, brooches, jewelry, a seal ring, pottery and more. Because there are no other people buried there — almost unheard of with monumental Mycenaean tombs which were usually built to accommodate multiple family members over the course of generations — archaeologists are in the unique position of being able to associate every artifact with the one man interred in the chamber.

It has already upended some of the received wisdom on Mycenaean funerary practices.

Finding this burial site and its features will give researchers the opportunity to better understand the burial practices of the region during the Mycenaean times. For example, the deposition of many jewels on a man-made burial contests – as in the case of a centuries-old warrior from Pylos found in 2015 – the widespread belief that the jewelry was mostly accompanied by women in their last home. It is also noteworthy that, with the exception of two small false amphoras, no Mycenaean ceramics were found in the grave, which, moreover, is extremely popular in this period.

This was a great way to inaugurate the first year of a five-year collaboration between the Greek Culture Ministry, the Ephorate of Antiquities of Viotia, the British School of Athens and the University of Cambridge. The interdisciplinary program combines excavation with osteoarchaeological study to find out more about the Mycenaean era. The discovery of the tomb dovetails perfectly with the program’s mission.

Orchomenos in the southeastern Greek province of Boetia traced its founding back to the mythological king Minyas, described as the son of an array of different deities and demigods depending on which account you read. He moved his people inland from Thessaly and established a new royal dynasty in a new capital. Heracles burned it down once in a fight against the Minyan king who was exacting heavy tribute from the Greeks.

Whatever the kernel of truth in the city’s origin myth, by the Mycenaean era Orchomenos was a center of wealth and civilization. It had a grand palace with elaborately frescoed walls, monumental tombs and ambitious infrastructure projects. The wetlands of nearby Lake Copaïs were drained to reclaim the fertile land for agriculture.

Tin cup with one handle. Photo by Yannis Galanakis.At its peak in the 14th and 13th centuries B.C., Orchomenos was comparable in prosperity and pomp to Thebes, the most important city in Mycenaean Greece. Its rise was halted in the 12th century B.C. when the city was razed — archaeological remains attest to Orchomenos being devastated by fire — but it was rebuilt successfully enough to reengage its rivalry with Thebes. That’s what did them in the end, internecine warfare. It was sacked repeatedly by Thebes and its allies in the 4th century B.C., and while it was rebuilt by Philip II of Macedon and his son, the future Alexander the Great, in 335 B.C., it never recovered its former significance. Under the Roman Empire and the Byzantine, Orchomenos had declined into just another sleepy little town among many, albeit one with an excellent theater courtesy of the Macedons.

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Cache of cavalry weapons found at Vindolanda

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

Speaking of banner dig seasons, this year’s excavations at Vindolanda Roman fort have unearthed a unique treasure: a large cache of weapons left behind on the floor of a cavalry barracks.

The discovery of the barrack was momentous on its own. The team of archaeologists and volunteers dug underneath the stone foundations of the 4th century fortress (the last one built at Vindolanda) and found a layer of anaerobic soil. That has been the secret to Vindolanda’s exceptional preservation of organic materials likes leather shoes, wooden toilet seats, birch log water pipes and, its famous writing tablets. Archaeologists did not expect to find this type of soil in this location and were elated.

Inside the oxygen-free soil layer, the team found timber walls, floors and fences recognizable from the remains of the stables as a Roman cavalry barrack. In total they’ve unearthed eight rooms — the stables, the living space for the humans, the kitchen ovens and fireplaces. The first blade was unearthed in a corner of the living room. The iron blade was still sharp and secured inside its wooden scabbard and the wooden pommel intact.

The numen of Vindolanda must be looking out for their archaeologists because a few weeks later the team found a second cavalry sword. It was just the blade and intact tang this time — no handle or scabbard or pommel — but it’s an incredibly rare piece nonetheless and the team was ecstatic to have found two cavalry swords inside one month. Long and very thin, Roman cavalry swords rarely survive the ravages of time because they’re so easily destroyed by corrosion.

They also found two wee wooden swords, toys for children, doubtless, and a massive quantities of assorted artifacts. Rubbing shoulders with swords real and toy were ink writing tablets, shoes, stylus pens, ink writing tablets, copper-alloy harness fittings, and even more weapons from cavalry lances to ballista bolts.

The abandonment of such an exceptional (and expensive) assortment of goods left strewn on the floor of the barracks must have been occasioned by some impending danger.

Birley said: “The swords are the icing on the cake for what is a truly remarkable discovery of one of the most comprehensive and important collections from the intimate lives of people living on the edge of the Roman Empire at a time of rebellion and war. What’s exciting is that [they] are remarkably well-preserved … There is a huge range of stuff – their hair combs, pots, wooden spoons, bowls, weapons, bits of armour, and their cavalry bling.

“Even for us, it’s very unusual to get things like complete Roman swords, sitting on the ground in their scabbards with their handles and their pommels. We were slightly dumbfounded by that. Then, to find another complete sword in another room next door only two metres away, two wooden swords and a host of other cavalry equipment, all in beautiful condition, is just terrific.

“Archaeologists would never expect to find a Roman cavalry sword in any context, because it’s like a modern-day soldier leaving his barracks and dumping his rifle on the floor … This is a very expensive thing. So why leave [it] behind?”

Dr Andrew Birley with sword. Photo courtesy the Vindolanda Trust.The barrack is one of the earliest built at Vindolanda. Constructed in 105 A.D., it predates Hadrian’s Wall by almost 20 years. At that time, it was host to military units from all over the empire, including the Belgians in the 1st Cohort of Tungrians and the Spanish Vardulli Cavalrymen.

Birley said: “There was strife. This is the precursor to Hadrian coming to the UK to build his wall. This is the British rebellion. So you can imagine a scenario where the guys and girls at Vindolanda are told: ‘We need to leave in a hurry, just take what you can carry.’ If it’s your sword or your child, you grab the child.”

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New Kingdom goldsmith’s tomb found in Luxor

Saturday, September 9th, 2017

The Draa Abul Nagaa necropolis in Luxor has had an extraordinarily productive year. In April Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry announced the discovery of a more than a thousand ushabti funerary figurines, eight mummies and 10 wooden sarcophagi with their polychrome paint still vivid in the tomb of an 18th Dynasty judge named Userhat. A month later the Spanish National Research Council revealed one of my favorite Egyptian finds of all time: the first funerary garden ever discovered. To that outstanding record we can now add the tomb of a New Kingdom goldsmith.

Archaeologists excavating the site unearthed a tomb replete with figurines, mummies, painted sarcophagi, jewelry, combs and, even more important to researchers, a statue whose inscription identifies the owner of the tomb as “Amun’s Goldsmith, Amenemhat.” The statue is a portrait of the Amenemhat seated next to his wife, a painted portrait of their son between them. His wife, identified as “the lady of the house,” was named Amenhotep, an unusual choice as it was traditionally a male name. The statue was placed in a niche in the courtyard of the site. According to the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al-Anani, the tomb dates to the 15th century B.C. during the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom.

The team unearthed two burial shafts. The first one archaeologists excavated and explored connected to a funerary chamber with multiple mummies, about 150 wood, clay and limestone ushabtis and funerary masks. The chamber at the end of the second shaft held the mummified remains of a woman and two children. Osteological analysis of the woman’s remains indicate she was about 50 years old when she died. She suffered from a painful bacterial bone disease, although it’s not clear if that was the underlying condition that led to her death. The two adult males with her, likely her sons, were in their 20s and 30s at time of death.

There is no evidence linking the remains to Amenemhat, so we don’t know if this is the wife depicted in the statue or someone completely different. Many tombs at Draa Abul Nagaa were reused for centuries, and this one was no exception. It was reused for burials during the 11th and 10th centuries B.C. (the Third Intermediate Period).

The excavation is ongoing and Al-Anani is hopeful that the team will be able to unearth more tombs, remains and artifacts. Dig leader Mostafa Waziri, head of the Antiquities Ministry’s Luxor department, thinks there are four more tombs adjacent to the goldsmith’s tomb. It was Waziri and his team that discovered the plethora of ushabtis and mummies in the judge’s tomb earlier this year, so it’s been a banner year for them.

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Stone latrine found in Byzantine basilica in Egypt

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the site of an ancient city on the shore of Lake Mariout southwest of Alexandria have unearthed a stone latrine in the remains of a Byzantine-era basilica. Built in the late 5th century A.D., the basilica was the second largest of its kind in Egypt. During its heyday, masses were attended by huge crowds. Congregants filled the interior and pilgrims lined the exterior of the church. Hence the need for toilet facilities.

“We believe that they were available to the believers – from the inside of the basilica, and to the pilgrims – from the outer walls of the building” – said [excavation director Dr. Krzysztof] Babraj. According to the scientist, the discovery is not a surprise for researchers, because the latrines were a standard facility in ancient churches. There probably were separate rooms for women and separate for men.

“Interestingly, the priest had a private latrine in one of the side chapels of the basilica” – added the archaeologist.

In keeping with the fine tradition of important artifacts being found in and around toilets, the team has discovered two exceptional pieces of jewelry in the rooms next to the latrines: a bronze seal ring engraved with the figure of a saint, and a tiny bracelet (probably worn by a child) engraved with an apotropaic symbol to ward off evil and bad luck. The seal ring is the only one known to have been discovered in northern Egypt. Researchers think it is a bishop’s ring used to stamp the official’s seal on official documents and correspondence.

The Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw and the Archaeological Museum of Krakow have been excavating the site since 2000. They believe it is the ancient city of Marea, a port town that gained international fame in the Greco-Roman era for its high quality wine, glass and pottery. Marea’s proximity to the Nile at full flood and to the Mediterranean enabled it to create a direct navigable route to the sea via a series of canals. The city prospered from the Mediterranean and Upper Egyptian trade for centuries and a great deal of archaeological evidence attests to the importance of its port. Six massive stone piers more than 100 meters (330 feet) long have been unearthed, the largest of which was made from large stone blocks sealed with waterproof mortar. Archaeologists have also found quays, a causeway linking the port an island 100 meters east on which additional piers and quays were built. There were sufficient harbour facilities to allow hundreds of ships to load and unload cargo at the same time.

While the Polish mission calls the site Marea, there is not universal agreement among scholars that they’re right. Marea was an important city already in the early Roman and was likely already coming to prominence during the reign of the Ptolemies, but in almost two decades of excavation, the mission has found very few remains from the Greco-Roman period, most notably a kiln from the 2nd-3rd century A.D. which is one of the largest ever found in Egypt. The basilica, public baths, and massive stone piers, the kind of imposing structures you would expect a city like Marea to have had in its ancient heyday, all date to much later, the 5th and 6th centuries.

Another possible identification for the city has been posited by the University of Warsaw’s Mieczyslaw Rodziewicz, an expert in Greco-Roman Alexandria. He suggested it might be Philoxenite, a Byzantine city founded during the reign of Eastern Roman Emperor Anastasius (491-518) to provide shelter and supplies for pilgrims on their way to the monastery of Abu Mena less than 20 miles southeast of the city. The body of martyr and saint Menas of Alexandria was said to have been transported from Alexandria past Lake Mariout into the desert. The monastery was built on the spot of his burial. It makes sense that a city built to accommodate pilgrims on their way to Abu Mena would be located on the path his body took, that it would have the large-scale facilities necessary to host this kind of traffic and that they would date to the early Byzantine era.

There’s a chance we might find the answer to this question written on potsherds. In a group of commercial buildings and residences behind the apse of the basilica, the Polish mission found a large number of ostracons (pottery fragments with writing scratched onto them). These are records left behind by the workers who built the basilica. They date to the 5th-6th century and most of them appear to have been written by one man. Translation is ongoing.

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Oldest known gospel commentary in Latin now in English

Monday, September 4th, 2017

A complete copy of a long-lost book from antiquity, the Commentary on the Gospels by Fortunatianus, Bishop of Aquileia, has been translated into English for the first time. The commentary was written in the middle of the fourth century and was believed to have been lost in early medieval period. Before the full commentary was found in a library in Germany in 2012, only three fragments from it were known to exist. Now that it has returned to us in its complete glory, it is the oldest surviving Latin commentary on the Gospels.

About 100 pages long, Fortunatianus’ commentary is divided four sections: an overview on the characteristics of the four Gospels, a detailed treatment of Matthew in three chapters, an index listing the 160 chapters of the commentary and lastly the commentary itself. Matthew gets the vast majority of the bishop’s attention, with 129 of those chapters covering the Gospel of Matthew. The famous opening verses of John get 18 chapters. Luke gets a little something with 13 chapters. No soup for Mark.

The commentary’s long-lost identity was rediscovered in 2012 by Dr. Lukas Dorfbauer from the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) of the University of Salzburg. He found it in Codex 17, a 9th century manuscript in the collection of the Archbishop’s Diocesan and Cathedral Library in Cologne. It was catalogued as an anonymous commentary, but Dorfbauer recognized it as a copy of an older original and when he read further he discovered three quotations that were the only known remnants of Fortunatianus of Aquileia’s gospel commentary.

According to Jerome’s account of him in De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), Fortunatianus was Bishop of Aquileia during the reign of Emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361). His commentary was important enough to rate a mention, but as far as Jerome was concerned, Fortunatianus was a heretical liar who was “considered detestable” because he had badgered and abused Pope Liberius into accepting Arianism after Constantius II, who supported the Arian side, had exiled the Liberius over the controversy.

Other than Jerome’s writings, there is no evidence of any conflict between the Arian Fortunatianus and the Orthodox Liberius. The Pope speaks of Fortunatianus in glowing terms in a letter to Eusebius, with no reference to any disagreement over whether, as Arius posited, Jesus Christ was separate and subordinate to God the Father.

“I have also sent letters to Fortunatianus, our brother and fellow bishop, whom I know does not fear human persons and has greater consideration for the future rewards, so that he too may see fit to be vigilant with you even now, for his personal integrity and for the faith which he knows he has kept even with the risks of the present life.”

Nor is there incontrovertible evidence that Liberius ever backed down from his vocal opposition to Arianism. The three letters that indict him for caving to pressure from the emperor are very likely forgeries.

Even as the question of the nature of the Christian Godhead raged in the highest ecclesiastical and imperial circles, even the most rabid Niceneans held Fortunatianus’ gospel commentary in high regard. Jerome admitted with characteristic grudging gracelessness that he had referred to Fortunatianus’ work when writing his own gospel commentaries.

Jerome wrote at the very end of the 4th century A.D.; after that, there are only a smattering of references to Fortunatianus’ commentary which don’t even credit the author by name. Centuries would pass before Fortunatianus got a few namedrops again. Carolingian scholars mention him by name in the 9th century, but wistfully remark on how the work itself was impossible to find by that point. Copies of the commentary were likely purged because of his purported Arian beliefs. As Jerome put it, his work was “held in detestation” too just like he was.

Dr. Dorfbauer began work on a new edition of the commentary in 2013, publishing multiple papers on the work as he progressed. Now he and Dr. Hugh Houghton, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing, have created an English translation of Commentary on the Gospels by Fortunatianus of Aquileia.

Dr Houghton, University of Birmingham, said:

“Most of the works which survive from the earliest period of Latin Christianity are by later, more famous authors such as St Jerome, St Ambrose or St Augustine and have attained the status of classics. To discover a work which predates these well-known writers is an extraordinary find.

“One of my contributions was to compare the biblical quotations in the Cologne manuscript with our databases here in Birmingham. Parallels with texts circulating in north Italy in the middle of the fourth century offer a perfect fit with the context of Fortunatianus.

“Astonishingly, despite being copied four centuries after the last reference to his gospel commentary, this manuscript seems to preserve the original form of Fortunatianus’ ground-breaking work.” […]

The biblical text of the manuscript is of particular significance, as it predates the standard Latin version known as the Vulgate and provides new evidence about the earliest form of the Gospels in Latin.

The identification of the lost manuscript has also allowed the researchers to identify other, shorter pieces as the work of Fortunatianus. Previously these works had been assigned to other ancient authors, such as Chromatius, a later Bishop of Aquileia, or Hilary of Poitiers but are now proven to be extracts from Fortunatianus.

Existing textbooks about the early reception of the Gospels will need to be revised to take account of this major find, which also contains important new material for liturgical studies and other aspects of early Christianity.

The best part of all is that this newly translated edition of a prodigal son of ancient literature has been returned to us in digital form. The entire book is available for free online in pdf format. It’s a beautiful fusion of ancient source and digital technology, and a perfect wheel-has-come-full-circle moment because Dr. Dorfbauer rediscovered the commentary while browsing the digitized version of the manuscript.

You can follow in his footsteps on the extraordinary Codices Electronici Ecclesiae Coloniensis website, which contains digital reproductions of all the medieval manuscripts owned by the Archbishop’s Diocesan and Cathedral Library in Cologne.

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Record-breaking Triceratops fossil found in Denver

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

On August 25th, a construction crew working on a new Public Safety Facility for police and fire services in Thornton, in the metropolitan area of Denver, Colorado, stumbled across the remains of one of the top 5 favorite dinosaurs of every child who just got his first dinosaur book: a Triceratops. Dan Wagner, a construction inspector with Terracon Consultants, made the first discovery. It was just a small piece of brownish bone but he wisely investigated further. He swept the area and found more of the bone embedded in the soil. When he had uncovered enough to see that this one bone was about four inches wide, he realized it had to be a dinosaur fossil.

A team of paleontologists and volunteers from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) excavated the fossil at the construction site. The excavation quickly yielded results. By August 29th, they’d unearthed a horn and a shoulder blade. The next day a second horn made its appearance, as did a piece of the frill, the lower jaw beak, a few ribs and vertebrae. As of September 1st, the bone count was up to 12.

The first bone to be fully excavated and removed from the site was a rib bone that weighs 40 pounds. Extrapolating from the size of the bones, Sertich estimates the Thornton Triceratops was rather petite, approximately the size of a rhino. Triceratops fossils discovered in Montana and North and South Dakota were notably larger than the Denver fellow, about the size of a medium elephant.

Because of its location on the K-Pg (Cretaceous–Paleogene) boundary — a thin geological stratum that marks the end of the Cretaceous Period and the beginning of the Paleogene Period — Denver sits atop a wealth of paleontological remains. There was a mass extinction event during this transition, one that took out all of the dinosaurs (except for the birdlike ones), so digging underneath the boundary in Denver can reveal a variety of fossils from the late Cretaceous, around 66 million years ago. Because Denver is so extensively built over, it’s not often that paleontologists have the opportunity to excavate below the boundary layer, and when they do, most of what they find are plant fossils; large animals like dinosaurs are rare finds in the Denver area. Dr. Sertich believes this Triceratops is one of the most important finds of the decade in Colorado.

“Based on what we’ve uncovered up to this point, this find is likely the most complete Cretaceous period skeleton ever found in this region,” said Joe Sertich, Denver Museum of Nature & Science curator of dinosaurs. “This is what we as curators dream about — getting a call about a possible fossil and confirming it’s not just a dinosaur fossil, but a record-breaking one!”

This wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the conscientiousness and immediate response of the construction crew.

“I really have to credit the professionals working at the site that discovered the fossils,” Sertich said. “They knew they hit something important and started making calls right away. It’s an unusual circumstance that everyone will benefit from for years to come since we’re able to preserve these bones on behalf of the people of Thornton and Colorado.”

The excavation is ongoing even as construction continues at the secure site. When a bone is fully excavated, the team covers it in a plaster jacket so that it will be protected during transportation to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Once safely in the care of the museum’s the paleontology lab, the plaster is cracked open like a cast and study and conservation of the bone begins. The conservation lab is behind glass in the museum’s Prehistoric Journey exhibition, so visitors will be able to view the Triceratops fossils at various stages in the process.

Teachers, the museum will be hosting a two-way interactive webinar for classrooms grades 4-12 on Tuesday, 9:30 AM Mountain time. Registration and your basic desktop computer setup with internet access are required. Register here for a unique opportunity to hear about this exciting find from Joe Sertich himself, ask him questions and generally spend the early hour of the school day doing something awesome. The rest of us will have to make do with a Facebook Live update about the Thornton Triceratops on the DMNS page Tuesday at 9:30 AM.

This video has no commentary or background music or anything extraneous whatsoever. Only close views of the excavation accompanied by ambient sounds, not even explanatory interjections from the experts. This is so exceedingly rare I must take a moment to thanks the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for trusting in the raw material being fascinating to anyone who would watch videos like this in the first place. Keep your eyes peeled for a magical moment of whimsy starting at the 2:04 mark.

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