Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Amphipolis mosaic is abduction of Persephone

Friday, October 17th, 2014

The east side of the mosaic in the second chamber of the 4th century B.C. tomb in Amphipolis has been uncovered revealing the red robe of the laureate figure and a young woman behind him wearing a white tunic tied under the bust with a red ribbon. She looks backwards, her red hair flowing, her left arm raised, hand open as in a wave. She wears handsome jewelry, a bracelet on her left wrist and a necklace of red beads around her neck. The red robe of the charioteer and the newly unearthed figure identifies the scene as the abduction of Persephone by Hades.

The laureate figure is the god of the Underworld, not, as was first posited before the entire mosaic was revealed, as the soul of the man interred in the tomb. Hermes leads the chariot in his role as psychopompos, guide of souls, as he is traditionally depicted on other artistic presentations of the Persephone myth. Her looking back in anguish with raised arm is also a characteristic posture, see for instance the Persephone krater in Berlin’s Altes Museum, an Apulian red-figure volute-krater made in 340 B.C., within a few decades of the estimated date of the tomb. This is the first time a figural floor mosaic has been found in a Macedonian tomb.

The scene, complete with Hermes running before the chariot and a red-haired Hades carrying away an equally red-haired Persephone as she reaches behind her for help, is also depicted in the royal tomb of King Philip II of Macedon at Aigai (Vergina). It is a mural, not a mosaic, a very rare instance of surviving Greek wall painting. Archaeologists suspect the duplicated theme is not a coincidence, that it may be an intentional reference to the art work in Philip’s tomb.

General Secretary of the Ministry of Culture Lina Mendoni described the potential connection in a press conference on the find:

“The scenes are linked with the cults of the Underworld, with the Orphic cult – the descent in Hades – and the Dionysian rites. The Head of the house of Macedon was the archpriest of these cults. I remind you of the recent research of the National Center of Scientific Research “Demokritos” in the residues of the mask found in the remains of bones of Philip. According to experts was the mask, which he wore Philip in Orphic rites. Therefore, the scene in our case has symbolic importance, which may indicate a relationship of the “occupier” of the tomb with the Macedonian House. The political symbolism is very strong in all periods.”

Connected to the rulers of Macedon or not, whoever was buried in this tomb was someone of great wealth and importance. That was clear from the sphinxes in the entrance, confirmed by the caryatids and ultra-super underscored by this mosaic of exceptional quality.

The mosaic covers the entire floor of the room and is 4.5 by 3 meters (14’9″ x 9’10″). In order to preserve the work as excavation continues, workers have placed a layer of styrofoam over it and wood paneling over the styrofoam. A false floor will be built 15 inches above the protective layers so that archaeologists can start the slow process of unblocking the door to chamber three on the north edge of the mosaic.

Here’s a neato 3D rendering of the tomb highlights as rteal.orged this far from Greek Toys:

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Iron Age Celtic chariot fittings found in hillfort dig

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Archaeologist from the University of Leicester have found a hoard of rare bronze fittings from a Celtic chariot while excavating the site of an Iron Age hillfort on Burrough Hill near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. The fittings date to the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. and were deliberately buried as a religious offering.

The hillfort has been excavated by the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History since 2010 as part of a five-year project to give students a chance to gain hands-on field experience while exploring the Iron Age occupation of the fort and the transition into the Roman period. In fact it was a group of four students who found the treasure. The first piece was unearthed in a deep pit they dug near the remains of a house. The rest were discovered nearby.

The fittings were put in a box and placed on a bed of cereal chaff with iron tools laid around it. The box was then burned, with the chaff possibly providing kindling as well as a cushion for the sacrifice. Once the fire was out, the offering was covered in a layer of burnt cinder and slag. Archaeologists think it could have been part of a religious ceremony marking the change of a season, or perhaps something related to the construction of the nearby house.

These are incredibly rare and highly prized objects, a matched set of chariot fittings that could only have belonged to someone of very high status, a lord or warrior. Cleaning revealed intricate decoration on the bronze pieces, including a triskele motif of three interlocked spirals popular in Celtic art.

It’s unclear what the purpose of the iron tools was. Archaeologists suspect they may have had a horse grooming function. One of them has a looped handle and bent end with shallow notches that suggest it may have been the Iron Age equivalent of a curry comb. Two curved blades could have been hoof trimming tools or used in the production of harness parts.

Dr Jeremy Taylor, University of Leicester Landscape Archaeology professor and co-director of the Burrough Hill field project could barely contain his awe at the importance of this find:

“This is the most remarkable discovery of material we made at Burrough Hill in the five years we worked on the site. This is a very rare discovery, and a strong sign of the prestige of the site.

“The atmosphere at the dig on the day was a mix of ‘tremendously excited’ and ‘slightly shell-shocked’. I have been excavating for 25 years and I have never found one of these pieces – let alone a whole set. It is a once-in-a-career discovery.”

The objects have been removed to the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History for cleaning, conservation and analysis. They will be put on display briefly at the Melton Carnegie Museum in Melton Mowbray, from Saturday, October 18th through Saturday, December 13th. Once the lab work is done, a permanent display will be arranged.

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Large mosaic found in Amphipolis tomb

Sunday, October 12th, 2014

The excavation of the Kasta Tumulus in Amphipolis has already uncovered two headless sphinxes guarding the entrance, two pilasters underneath the sphinxes with the remains of black and red paint on the capital, a pebbled mosaic floor and in a second chamber beyond the portal, two caryatids. Now the Greek Culture Ministry has announced they also found a large, elaborate, colorful floor mosaic in the second chamber.

While the floor mosaic in the entrance chamber is made of irregularly shaped marble fragments set in red mortar, this piece is a pictorial mosaic of immense skill and artistic merit.

The mosaic, 10 feet long and 15 feet wide, depicts a horseman with a laurel wreath driving a chariot drawn by two horses and preceded by the god Hermes. According to a Culture Ministry announcement on Sunday, Hermes is depicted here as the conductor of souls to the afterlife.

The mosaic is made up of pebbles in many colors: white, black, gray, blue, red and yellow. A circular part, near the center of the mosaic, is missing, but authorities say enough fragments have been found to reconstruct a large part.

Hermes, in his characteristic hat (petasos) and winged sandals, holds a caduceus as he leads the chariot and its noble driver from the east side of the chamber to the west. Around the central scene is a thick decorative frame almost two feet wide with geometric double meanders and squares framed with running spirals above and below.

The mosaic covers the entire floor of the second chamber excavated so far and archaeologists are hopeful that more of it will be revealed as they gradually dig away the soil filling the space to the east and west of it. Progress has been slow because the structure is delicate so the walls and ceilings have to be shored up with retaining walls and wood and steel beams as archaeologists cautiously remove the fill a little at a time.

The mosaic dates to the last quarter of the 4th century B.C., a range in keeping with the speculation that someone connected to Alexander the Great may have been buried in this tomb. As of yet, no names or inscriptions of any kind of found, nor any graves, for that matter.

North of the mosaic is a marble threshold of the door that leads to the third chamber. Archaeologists are still working on removing the soil from the third chamber in small sections, but they have identified another door, which means there is probably a fourth chamber behind it. If there is any burial to be found in this tumulus, it’s likely to be in one of these two chambers. So far archaeologists have found three fragments of a marble door, a hinge and bronze and iron nails in a removed section of the soil in the third chamber. The door fragments are additional evidence that the site is indeed a Macedonian tomb (as opposed to, say, Roman, which at least one archaeologist has posited).

To get a better idea of the floor plan of what’s been uncovered so far, see this page. The whole site is an absolute gem, with clear explanations of past discoveries and regularly updated with new information and photographs from the tomb as excavation progresses.

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Flint dagger with bark hilt found in Denmark

Saturday, October 11th, 2014

Archaeologists from the Museum Lolland-Falster discovered a flint dagger with a bark-wrapped hilt while surveying a site in southern Zealand that will be a part of the Fehmarn Belt Link, an underwater tunnel connecting Germany and Denmark. The dagger is about 3,000 years old, dating to the Early Bronze Age, a time when bronze was replacing flint as the blade of choice. During this transitional period, bronze was still hard to come by and when it wasn’t available, artisans made daggers with flint blades incorporating the new hilt technology used in bronze pieces.

Examples of this rare combination of Stone and Bronze Age have been discovered before in Germany, but this is the first time one has been found in Denmark. The German ones were found in graves as daggers were valuable and their owners kept them even unto death. The Zealand dagger was found in an ancient seabed. The waterlogged environment preserved the delicate organic material.

“A hilt dagger of this type never before found in Denmark. We know the type, but to find such a magnificent specimen of a hilt is absolutely fantastic. Enthusiasm was enormous, as the dagger suddenly appeared after the excavator had removed the overlying layers. But when we removed it and saw that parts of a bark hilt was preserved almost intact, we thought the excitement never ends,” says a smiling Anders Rosendahl, archaeologist at the Museum Lolland-Falster.

The dagger is about eight inches (20 cm) long and made from a single piece of charcoal grey flint that is in exceptional condition. The hilt is wrapped in layers of birch bark to make it easier (and less dangerous) to hold.

The same day it was found, the dagger was sent to the National Museum in Copenhagen to ensure its conservation. Researchers hope that the conservation and study of the bark will be able to answer some questions about the dagger, like where it was made.

(Yes, that does look way more like obsidian, but every source, including the museum website, calls it flint so I’m going with that.)

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Bronze Age palace, burials unearthed in Spain

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

A team from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) excavating the Bronze Age archaeological site on the La Almoloya plateau in the southeastern Spanish municipality of Pliego have unearthed residential and government buildings and 50 tombs. The plateau’s steep slopes made it a highly defensible location that was occupied from 2,200 B.C. to 1,550 B.C. by the El Argar culture. The extensive construction and dense population point to La Almoloya having been an important political center 70 miles northeast of the Argaric capital of El Argar (modern-day Antas, Almeria).

Artifacts found inside the buildings were in excellent condition. Metals, ceramics, stone and bone survived alongside exceptionally rare textiles. The structures and their contents paint a picture of a rich urban environment that is unique in Bronze Age continental Europe.

The excavations indicate that the La Almoloya plateau, of 3,800 metres square, was densely populated and included several residential complexes of some 300 square metres, with eight to twelve rooms in each residence. The buildings’ walls were constructed with stones and argamasa [a kind of lime mortar], and covered with layers of mortar. Some parts contain stucco decorated with geometric and naturalistic motifs, a novelty which represents the discovery of an Argaric artistic style.

Among the discoveries made is a wide hall with high ceilings measuring some 70 square metres, with capacity for 64 people seated on the benches lining the walls. The hall includes a ceremonial fireplace and a podium of symbolic character. This unique building was used for political purposes and archaeologists consider that it must have been used to celebrate hearings or government meetings.

Archaeologists affirm that this is the first time a building specifically dedicated to governing purposes has been discovered in Western Europe, and believe that decisions were taken here which affected many of the region’s other communities.

The ceremonial hall is flanked by adjoining rooms. Because of its political significance and large size, archaeologists categorize this structure as a palace, and a highly advanced one at that, comparable only to near Eastern buildings from this era.

Another reason to deem the building a royal palace is a tomb that was found adjacent to the main wall of the government hall. It holds the skeletal remains of an adult man and woman who were buried with 30 artifacts made of precious metals and gemstones. The woman wore a silver diadem around her head, one of only five Agaric diadems ever discovered and none of the other four remain in Spain. They were found at the El Argar type site by Belgian mine engineers Henri and Louis Siret in the 1880s and are now in the permanent collection of the Royal Museums of Art and History’s Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels.

The royal couple were also buried with four ear dilators, two of gold, two of silver, plus silver rings, earrings and bracelets. A bronze dagger had silver nails in the handle. These are rare and important examples of the advanced metallurgy of the El Argar culture. Two other pieces are uniquely significant on that score: a ceramic vessel with bands of finely layered silver and a punch with a bronze tip and a silver handle. Both of them are one of a kind objects that demonstrate the high level of Argaric silver craftsmanship.

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Head of goddess found at Arbeia Roman fort

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

A volunteer with WallQuest, a community archaeology project excavating Arbeia Roman fort in South Shields at the easternmost end of Hadrian’s Wall has discovered a carved stone head of a goddess. The small figure is just over three inches high and is finely carved. She wears a mural crown — a crown in the shape of battlements — that identifies her as a protective goddess. Archaeologists believe she is a representation of Brigantia, the goddess of the northern British tribe of the Brigantes. Indeed, an altar inscribed “Deae Brigantiae sacrum Congenncus (V[otum] S[olvit] L[ibens] M[erito]” (To the sacred goddess Brigantia Congenncus willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow) was unearthed 100 yards from the head in 1895, and at least one other statue of Brigantia wearing a mural crown has been found.

The find is a small, finely carved female head which is believed to date back to the second century AD and stands at 8cm high. Every part is delicately carved including eyes, nose, mouth and hairstyle with traces of pink paint on the statues face as well as a bit of red on her lips.

The head dates to the 2nd century A.D., early in the life of the fort which was first built overlooking the River Tyne around 160 A.D. and enlarged in 208 A.D. to serve as a maritime supply base the soldiers along Hadrian’s Wall. We know the stone goddess predates that expansion because it was found in an aqueduct channel that was filled so new construction could be done on top of it. The statue of the goddess wouldn’t have been freestanding on its own; given the discovery of her head and the altar found in the 19th century, it’s likely that there was a shrine to Brigantia in Arbeia that was demolished to make room for the enlargement of the fort.

Troop divisions at Arbeia that have been identified thus far include boatmen from the Tigris River in what was then Persia, now Iraq, Gaulish infantry, Spanish cavalry (First Asturian) and Syrian archers. Although locals probably enlisted later on, when the statue was standing, it was these units from all over the empire who were likely responsible for creating the shrine to the local goddess.

Nick Hodgson, WallQuest Project Manager, said:

“The head is a truly wonderful find. Northern Britain was a dangerous place for the Roman army in the second century AD; if the goddess is Brigantia it shows how keen the Romans were to placate the spirits of the region.”

It must have worked, because Arbeia and the civilian settlement that grew in its shadow remained in active use for decades after most of the other fort settlements on Hadrian’s Wall were abandoned or greatly contracted. There was new construction in the Arbeia settlement in the late 3rd century or early 4th. This is attributable to its commercial importance as a maritime fort and market center. The only permanent masonry granaries ever found in Britain were built in Arbeia. The fort and settlement were in use through the end of the Roman occupation in the 5th century.

The head of Brigantia will be conserved over the next few months. In Spring of 2015, it will go on display at the Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum. At the same time the community excavation project at Arbeia will begin again, and volunteers will have the opportunity to look for the rest of the statue.

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Cirencester cockerel goes on display

Monday, October 6th, 2014

The enamelled bronze cockerel found in a child’s grave in the western cemetery of Roman Cirencester in 2011 has gone on display at the Corinium Museum along with other artifacts excavated during that dig. The site was known to have had a Roman cemetery since the 1960s when it was surveyed before the construction of Bridges Garage, but the auto body shop had dug deep to accommodate two huge underground fuel tanks, so archaeologists thought whatever was left of the cemetery was probably destroyed.

When the Bridges Garage property was slated for redevelopment in 2011, the archaeologists who returned to survey the site had modest expectations. Much to their surprise, they found 71 inhumations and three cremations, a surprisingly high number of the former (the 60s excavation had found 46 cremations and eight inhumations). The cemetery spanned almost the entire period of Roman Britain, from the late 1st century through the fourth. Archaeologists were able to identify 30 females and 21 males from the inhumations (the sex of the remaining 20 could not be determined). There was significantly more bone wear in the shoulders of the male, probably an indication of repetitive motion strain from skilled crafts like stone-working rather than agricultural work.

The grave in which the cockerel was found is one of the earlier ones, dating to the middle of the 2nd century A.D. The child was about two or three years old and must have come from a wealthy family because she or he was buried in a wooden coffin with the bronze cockerel placed near his head and a pottery feeding cup with a drinking spout known as a tettine. The cockerel was a very expensive piece, the product of high quality workmanship made in northern Britain and exported all over the empire.

Only eight of these objects survive, four in Britain, four in Germany and the Low Countries. This is the only one of the British cockerels to have been found in a grave, and the only one of all of them that still has its tail. That’s significant not just because it’s a fabulous openwork enameled rooster tail, but because before it was found, archaeologists speculated that these figurines might have had a practical use, like as lamps, due to their hollow bodies. The tail was soldered in place, however, making the hollow body inaccessible and usage as a lamp impossible. It was likely included in the grave as a symbol of the god Mercury who guided the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

In the same display case with the cockerel are a selection of jewels also found in the grave of a child. Jet beads found around the neck were once part of a necklace. Jet bracelets and bangles were found at the wrists, while two bronze bracelets were buried under the child’s feet. This was a later burial than the cockerel child’s, dating to the late 3rd or early 4th century. Other jewels on display were found in the grave of a late Roman woman. Near her wrist archaeologists found bone bracelets with metal clasps, a sheet metal bracelet with abstract designs and a bracelet of glass and bone beads strung on a copper-alloy wire chain.

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Spain’s earliest image of Jesus found on glass plate

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Cástulo in south central Spain have found a glass liturgical vessel from the 4th century that is the earliest known representation of Christ ever discovered in Spain. It’s a paten, a shallow bowl or dish used to hold the consecrated host during the sacrament of the Eucharist. Although it was found in fragments, they’re in excellent condition with only very few details of the decoration eroded, a survival all the more remarkable when you consider that the high quality blown glass is just two millimeters thick. The pieces were painstakingly puzzled together with Paraloid, a thermoplastic resin used as a glass and ceramic adhesive by conservators, to form 81% of the complete dish. In total 175 grams of glass were recovered.

The paten is 22 centimeters (8.7 inches) in diameter and is scratch-engraved with a depiction of Christ in Majesty. He stands in the center of the dish, holding a bejewled cross, symbol of resurrection, in his right hand and the gospels in his left. Above him to the right is the Chi Rho symbol between the alpha and omega. Two men, apostles, likely Peter and Paul, flank Christ, each holding a scroll. The figures are bracketed by date palm trees, symbols of immortality in paleochristian iconography.

Archaeologists were able to date the paten to the 4th century thanks to ceramic pieces and coins found in the room, one of which was minted under Emperor Constantius II (337-361 A.D.). That places the vessel in the early decades of Christianity as a legal religion that could be practiced in public. The Edict of Milan, which granted religious liberty to Christians, was promulgated by Emperors Constantine I and Licinius in 313 A.D. Before then depictions of Christ were hidden in private homes and catacombs while in public Christians used cryptic symbols like the ichthys (Jesus fish).

The depiction of Christ as a beardless youth with short curly hair in the Alexandrian style wearing a philosopher’s toga is typical of this transitional period of Christianity. The scene itself, a version of the Traditio legis (“transmission of the law”) in which Christ stands or sits enthroned giving scrolls to Peter and Paul on either side of him, is a paleochristian motif drawn from depictions of the Roman emperor. The standing Christ is earlier than the enthroned version which became popular in the second half of the 4th century, as in the central relief panel of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, made in 359 A.D.

Both apostles carry the rotulus legis (scroll of the law) and they’re both wearing togas. They have short but full hair and are cleanly shaven, another mark of how early this image is since once the iconography became standardized Peter and Paul would be depicted with balding heads and beards.

The fact that the paten is made of glass is another indication of its age. According to the Liber Pontificalis, a compendium of papal biographies, Pope Zepherinus (199-217 A.D.) “made a regulation for the church, that there should be vessels of glass before the priests in the church and servitors to hold them while the bishop was celebrating mass and priests standing about him. Thus mass should be celebrated and the clergy should assist in all the ceremony, except in that which belongs only to the bishop; from the consecration of the bishop’s hand the priest should receive the consecrated wafer to distribute to the people.”

One pope later, Urban I (222-230 A.D.) “had all sacred vessels made of silver, and he gave as an offering 25 patens of silver [one for each titular church].” The source for Urban’s order replacing all glass liturgical vessels with ones made of precious metals is thought to be a 6th century hagiography of St. Cecilia, which is shaky, to say the least, so it’s likely the shift from glass to silver is of later date.

The discovery of the glass paten in the context makes it even more important. Before its discovery, some archaeologists had posited that the 4th century building in which it was found was a very early Christian religious structure, midway between the catacombs and clandestine churches in private homes and the first official Christian architecture of the Roman empire. However there was no direct evidence of that — no frescoes or crosses or any other overtly Christian decoration. The paten supplies that evidence that the building was used for Christian services.

Inhabited since the Neolithic, Cástulo was important center of trade in the Roman world. It had been an ally of Rome since the city betrayed the Carthaginian army in the second century B.C., and its location on the Guadalquivir River connected it directly to Córdoba, capital of the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior Baetica. Just a few meters away from the structure where the paten was found is a building from the first century A.D. dedicated to the cult of Emperor Domitian. In 2012, archaeologists unearthed a mosaic floor there that is nothing short of spectacular. Because Domitian was assassinated in 96 A.D. and the Senate issued a damnatio memoriae erasing his name from all public documents, art and architecture, the building was never completed. The walls were demolished, covering the mosaic with rubble and preserving it in unbelievable condition for archaeologists to find. It’s made from 750,000 tiles in 24 brilliant colors imported from all over the empire. Do yourself a favor and explore the entire mosaic in high resolution here. Its quality is a testament to the wealth and importance of the ancient city.

Once Christianity came into the picture, Cástulo became an episcopal see. We know there was a bishop there at least as early as 305 A.D. because records of the ecclesiastical Synod of Elvira (305-6 A.D.) list one of the bishops present as “Secundinus episcopus Castulonensis,” or Secundinus Bishop of Castulo. It remained an episcopal see under Visigothic rule until the second half of the 7th century. Cástulo became overshadowed by its castle-defended neighbor of Linares after the Muslim conquest and was ultimately abandoned in the 13th century.

The paten is now on display at the Archaeological Museum of Linares.

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Met saves Treasure of Harageh from auction sale

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has stepped in to save an ancient Egyptian collection of artifacts from dispersal into the auction void. The Treasure of Harageh, a group of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry and travertine vessels excavated in 1913-14 from Tomb 124 at Harageh near the city of Faiyum in Middle Egypt, was supposed to go under the hammer at the Bonhams Antiquities sale on October 2nd. At the last minute, the lot was withdrawn and Bonhams announced it had negotiated a private sale for an undisclosed amount to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This was a happy result for a controversial sale. The controversy wasn’t the usual kind. There was no trumped up “Swiss private collection” provenance; the ownership history was clear and unblemished, the publication record extensive. It was the seller raising eyebrows: the American Institute for Archaeology’s St. Louis Society. The AIA is opposed on principle to the sale of antiquities, believing they belong in the care of experts who will conserve them and make them available to the public for educational purposes. The St. Louis Society is an independent non-profit, however, and its charter with the AIA only explicitly prohibits the sale or purchase of undocumented artifacts, so no matter how horrified the national organization was, it could not prevent the sale.

The artifacts have belonged to the St. Louis Society since they were first excavated by a British School of Archaeology team led by Reginald Engelbach under the direction of pioneering archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie. The Society helped fund the excavation. In return, they received this exceptional group of artifacts. There are five travertine objects, four of them vessels, one of them a cosmetic spoon with a handle in the shape of an ankh. The jewelry group is seven cowrie shell-shaped pendants made of silver, a rare material worth more than gold in the Middle Kingdom, 14 real sea shell pendants mounted in silver and 11 silver pieces inlaid with various hardstones that probably were part of a pectoral plaque.

It’s the 11 pectoral pieces that date the artifacts. Individual pieces are designed as hieroglyphs that spell the name of Pharoah Senusret II, the fourth pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty who ruled from 1897-1878 B.C. One of the 11 is also the standout piece of the collection. It’s a unique jewel in the shape of a bee. What makes it unique is that it’s three-dimensional, with inlays on both sides and even visible from the top. There is no other 3D jewel known from the Middle Kingdom. The bee, the real shell pendants (the first known instance of actual shells being used in Egyptian jewelry) and the ankh spoon are all unique and of major historical significance.

For many years the collection was kept at the St. Louis Art Museum. In 2011 it was moved to Washington University in St. Louis and two years ago it wound up in private storage at a cost of $2,000 a year. It was that storage fee and the conservation challenge that drove the St. Louis Society to sell the Treasure of Harageh. Howard Wimmer, secretary of the St. Louis Society, said: “If there had been any way that we could have reasonably kept these items in St. Louis, we never would have pursued this course. One way or the other, we had to find a new home.”

It’s that one way they chose that was the sticking point. The AIA might not have had grounds to block the sale, but it wasn’t the only interested party.

Alice Stevenson, curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London, said a sale to a private buyer would have violated an agreement between the museum’s namesake explorer and the St. Louis group that the antiquities be distributed to public museums, accessible to both researchers and the public.

“Museums and archaeologists are stewards of the past,” she said. “They should not sell archaeological items in their collections for profit.”.

Thanks to the Met, which is glad to join this treasure to other Harageh artifacts in its permanent collection, the sale of these antiquities won’t see them dispersed contextless into private collections out of the reach of the public and scholars. Unfortunately, there was one lot from the St. Louis Society’s Harageh artifacts, a Tenth-Eleventh Dynasty travertine head rest (2150-1990 B.C.) that did not get an eleventh hour reprieve. It sold to an unknown buyer for £27,500 ($44,182). I wonder if the Petrie Museum is aware of this sale. It seems like they might have legal grounds to void it.

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First coin in a hoard of 22,000 is one millionth PAS find

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has reached a milestone in a most dramatic fashion: its one millionth recorded find is a 4th century Roman coin proved to be the first in a hoard of 22,000 coins. It was found on November 16th of last year by semi-retired builder and metal detector hobbyist Laurence Egerton on the Clinton Devon Estates, near Seaton Down, Devon. He found the first two coins just under the surface, then dug deeper. His shovel came up overflowing with similar coins.

Here’s video his wife shot of his discovery:

Egerton alerted the Devon PAS Finds Liaison Officer and the county archaeologist. He was told to remove all the loose objects and refill the hole while the Devon County Council arranged a professional excavation. Just to be sure nobody else interfered with the hoard, Egerton slept in his car next to it for three nights. Between November 18th and 22nd, contract archaeologists excavated an area of three square meters around the find spot.

They found thousands of coins stuck together in one main group in a small pit. There are two concreted lumps within the main group which may indicate several deposits were made over time. The lozenge shape of the main deposit suggests they were buried in something flexible like a bag rather than, say, a chest. Underneath the coins fragments of what may be a fabric of some kind were recovered. They’ll be tested to determine whether they could be the remains of the bag that once held the coins.

The Seaton Down Hoard was transferred to the British Museum where the coins were lightly cleaned so they could be valued in compliance with the Treasure Act. The total weight of the coins is 68 kg (150 pounds). They range in date from the 260s A.D. to the 340s with 99% of them struck between 330 and 341 A.D. in the reigns of Constantine and his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. The most recent coins date to 347-8 A.D. from the joint reign of Constantius II and Constans, the latter of whom was the last legitimate Roman emperor to visit Britain in 343 A.D.

Almost all of the coins are a very common type known as a nummus made of copper-alloy with a small amount of silver. (The handful of 3rd century coins are radiates.) Most of them, more than 11,000, were struck at the mint in Augusta Treverorum (Trier), with 3500 struck in Lugdunum (Lyon) and 2000 at Arelate (Arles). In total an impressive 17 mints are represented in the hoard, and there are some ancient forgeries of indeterminate origin too.

The millionth PAS find, the first coin Egerton unearthed, is a nummus struck in 332 A.D. at the Lyon mint to celebrate Constantine’s founding of the new imperial capital of Constantinople. The obverse of the coin features a personification of Constantinopolis, a laureate and helmeted bust with a scepter over the left shoulder; the reverse depicts winged Victory standing on ship’s prow, holding a scepter of spear in front of her and a shield behind.

Coin hoards from the reigns of Constantine and his sons are among the most commonly found in Britain, but Seaton Down is notable both for its large size (the fifth largest ever found in Britain) and because it was excavated and recorded by archaeologists. All the other big Constantinian hoards, like the one of 22,670 coins unearthed at Nether Compton, Dorset, in 1989, were never recorded, analyzed or studied before being returned to the finder who broke up the collection and sold the coins piecemeal. Copper coins weren’t considered Treasure Trove by the laws at that time, and the local museum that kept the hoard until it was returned to finder just didn’t have the resources to study it properly.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was founded in 1997 to help prevent that kind of loss to the nation’s scholarship cultural heritage. In this case it has functioned as planned, giving archaeologists the opportunity to remove the coins in solid blocks so that even tiny fragments can be analyzed for key information by an institution (the British Museum) that has the technology, expertise and funding to thoroughly study and document the find.

The hoard was officially declared treasure this month. Next on the schedule for the Seaton Down Hoard is for its market value to be determined by the Valuation Committee. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter, the museum in Devon closest to the find, wants to get a jump on the process. They’ve launched a fundraising campaign so they’ll have the money to pay the finder and landowner the amount of the valuation and keep the hoard together in the county where it was discovered. You can donate online here.

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