Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Tutankhamun’s neglected gold gets its day

Friday, November 17th, 2017

When Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922, there was such an immense wealth piled inside the small space that his team focused on the large ticket item and packed the rest up. Even finely embossed gold artifacts weren’t important enough to get attention compared to Tutankhamun’s death mask, especially since they were found in pieces before being stashed in the wooden box. They photographed the contents but that was it; they were left uncleaned, unexamined and otherwise undocumented. One of those wooden boxes has been in the stores of the Egyptian Museum Cairo ever since, still uncleaned and unexamined, for decades until 2013 when a collaboration between the Egyptian Museum and Tübingen University archaeologists set out to remedy this 90-year-old oversight. Four years later, the long-awaited goal has been achieved.

The team found the objects in Carter’s original wood crate and began to document and research each piece. They were restored and drawings made of their shape and decorations. The work was painstakingly detailed (hence the four years). In addition to the restoration, documentation and research, the team also faced jigsawing together of the gold fragments. Conservators Christian Eckmann and Katja Broschat were able to place many of the fragments together, ultimately producing about 100 complete or close to complete gold applications that they think were once fittings mounted on bows cases, quivers and horse bridles. One recomposed in their original configurations, the applications could be studied from an art historical perspective. Images embossed on the gold were studied in detail by team member Julia Bertsch, doctoral candidate in archaeology at Tübingen, who was able to identify Egyptian motifs from Middle Eastern ones.

Among these are images of fighting animals and goats at the tree of life that are foreign to Egyptian art and must have come to Egypt from the Levant. “Presumably these motifs, which were once developed in Mesopotamia, made their way to the Mediterranean region and Egypt via Syria,” explains Peter Pfälzner. “This again shows the great role that ancient Syria played in the dissemination of culture during the Bronze Age.”

Interestingly, he adds, similar embossed gold applications with thematically comparable images were found in a tomb in the Syrian Royal city of Qatna. There, the team of archaeologists from Tübingen led by Pfälzner, discovered a pristine king’s grave in 2002. It dates back to the time of around 1340 B.C., so it is just a bit older than Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt. The archaeologist says, “This remarkable aspect provided the impetus for our project on the Egyptian finds.” Now,” says Pfälzner, “we need to solve the riddle of how the foreign motifs on the embossed gold applications came to be adopted in Egypt.” The professor says that here, chemical analyses have been illuminating. “The results showed that the embossed gold applications with Egyptian motifs and the others with foreign motifs were made of gold of differing compositions,” he says. “That does not necessarily mean the pieces were imported. It may be that various local workshops were responsible for producing objects in various styles — and that one used Near Eastern models.”

On Wednesday the gold embossed fittings went on public display for the first time in almost a century in an exhibition at the Egyptian Museum. When this temporary show closes, the artifacts will find a permanent home at the new Grand Egyptian Museum near the pyramids of Giza.

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Earliest evidence of winemaking found in Georgia

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the remains of a Neolithic village in the South Caucasus about 20 miles south of Tblisi, Georgia, have discovered the earliest evidence of winemaking in the world. An internation team from the University of Toronto and the Georgian National Museum have been exploring two Early Ceramic Neolithic (6000-4500 B.C.) sites, Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, and sent fragment of ceramic jars unearthed at the sites to specialists at the University of Pennsylvania for residue analysis. Using the latest and greatest technology available, a combination of Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry (FT-IR), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), and liquid chromatography linear ion trap/orbitrap mass spectrometry (LC-MS-MS), and radiocarbon dating, researchers were able to confirm the presence of wine dating to 6,000–5,800 B.C. in the pots. That’s 600-1,000 years older than the previous contender, wine residue found in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

The South Caucasus area was an epicenter of the transition from nomadic lifestyles to permanent settlements after the end of the last Ice Age. Now fixed in one place, people were able to grow their own food, planting grains and cereals like einkorn wheat and barely that are trendy again today as heritage foods. They also branched out from those staples, growing fruits, root vegetables, herbs, nuts both tree and legume. Among the fruits they cultivated was the wild Eurasian grape, domesticated during this period in Neolithic settlements and so successfully that it would become the progenitor of all 10,000 or so grape cultivars that produce 99% of the wine in the world today.

Finding ways to convert their crops into mind-altering substances was a natural next step, as was devising vessels in which to store, ferment and serve the harvest products. The firing of shaped clay to make pottery was invented during this period, the early 7th millenium B.C., for this very purpose. The huge jars found at Gadachrili and Shulaveris (or, more accurately, the fragments thereof) are examples of some of the earliest pottery ever made. Archaeologists believe they were used for all of the above purposes — storage of the grapes, fermentation into wine, aging into drinkable wine, and the moment everyone was doubtless waiting for, serving the wine.

Their footprints and walls visible above-ground today, the mudbrick roundhouses of Gadachrili Gora and its next-door neighboor Shulaveris Gora were certainly inhabited by grape-loving people. Pollen and other traces of the prehistoric vines have been found in copious quantities. A large pot from this period discovered at a nearby site is decorated with grape clusters. Intact ceramic pots have not been found at the two sites that are the focus of the study. Pottery production was in its infancy. There was no large scale industry yet, and because these settlements were in continuous use for thousands of years, the pottery that has been found in excavations is fragmentary and scattered.

The team sought out the best examples of sherds from the 2012–13 and 2014–2016 dig seasons, pieces from the base have the most potential to contain residue accumulated over years of use. The final tally was six sherds from the bodies and 13 from the bases of 19 large jars. The pot fragments and samples of the soil in which they were found (to identify/rule out environmental or bacteriological contaminants) made their way to the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers say the combined archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic and radiocarbon data provided by the analysis demonstrate that the Eurasian grapevine Vitis vinifera was abundant around the sites. It grew under ideal environmental conditions in early Neolithic times, similar to premium wine-producing regions in Italy and southern France today.

“Our research suggests that one of the primary adaptations of the Neolithic way of life as it spread to Caucasia was viniculture,” says [Stephen Batiuk, senior research associate in the department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations and the Archaeology Centre at the University of Toronto]. “The domestication of the grape apparently led eventually led to the emergence of a wine culture in the region.”

Batiuk describes an ancient society in which the drinking and offering of wine penetrates and permeates nearly every aspect of life from medical practice to special celebrations, from birth to death, to everyday meals at which toasting is common.

“As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopeias, cuisines, economics, and society throughout the ancient Near East,” he said.

The results have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be read online free of charge here.

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Temple with oldest mural in Peru engulfed in flame

Monday, November 13th, 2017

The remains of a 4,500-year-old temple in Peru’s pre-Incan Ventarrón archaeological complex was devastated by fire on November 12th. As estimated 95% of the temple complex has suffered heavy damage as high winds fanned the flames faster than the archaeologists on site and the firefighters could contain them. One of the walls of the temple was decorated with a gripping mural of a dear being caught in a net. At about 4,000 years old, it’s the oldest known mural in Peru and the oldest in the Americas that has been absolutely dated and archaeologically excavated. It has been severely damaged by the smoke and heat. Whether there’s any hope of repair or recovery is uncertain at this time. While most of the fire is out now, we won’t know more until it has been entirely extinguished and archaeologists have the chance to examine the devastation.

Huaca Ventarrón was discovered in the Lambayeque region of northern Peru in 2007. Radiocarbon dating of the mud brick structure and artifacts revealed that the large complex was built in three phases, each named after the decorative motifs in the artwork — the “Temple of fish and opossum,” “Red-White Temple or Deer Hunting,” and “Green Temple” — over the course of the thousand years between 2,600 and 1,600 B.C. This is very early in the Mesoamerican timeline, a period now known as the Initial Formative or Preclassic Era, and the murals and objects discovered there feature iconographic and architectural approaches that have not been found anywhere else.

Since the site was opened to visitors in 2014, the monumental architecture, a matrix for later cultures who inhabited the coastal desert region of northern Peru, and the murals have made Ventarrón an important stop on archaeological tours of the Lambayeque region. More than 15,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them Peruvian nationals, have visited the site, often in conjunction with a trip to see the famed Lords of Sipan Moche tombs and museum nearby.

Indeed it was the director of the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum Walter Alva, who in 2007 led the excavation that discovered the Ventarrón temple complex, tasked with announcing the horrifying news.

“I have received the lamentable and tragic news of a fire that has destroyed the archaeological monument of Ventarron,” museum head Walter Alva said in a statement. […]

The fire devastated the ancient mural as well as pottery vessels and records of the Ventarron Archaeological Comoplex in Pomalca, in the Lambayeque region, television images showed.

Workers from the Pomalca agribusiness company triggered the blaze when they ignited a sugarcane field.

“We are losing an exceptional monument unique to its generation,” said Alva, who discovered the site in 2007. “I hope there is an investigation and responsibility established.”

“I can only express my outrage and sadness for this irreparable loss.”

The temple’s central staircase leads up to an altar that archaeologists believe was used to make offerings to the gods and to worship fire. Never disrespect the local gods, people. If history teaches us anything it’s that they’ll get back at you with as painful an irony they can devise.

The Culture Ministry in Lima is investigating the fire and will file charges based on cultural patrimony protections should they find there was any negligence or failure to adhere to all statutes regarding potentially dangerous activities near historically significant sites. I can’t say I’m holding my breath on this one.

If you can stomach it, here is video of the fire ripping through the temple complex. It was shot by archaeologist Ignacio Alva Meneses.

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London Mithraeum is finally home again

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

The remains of the Temple of Mithras discovered under central London’s Walbrook Square in 1954 has returned to its original location and it looks great, better than it has in 50+ years. The temple, first built around 240 A.D., was unearthed by archaeologists William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams in the very last days of a two-year archaeological survey of the site before the construction of new office buildings. The temple was identified as a Mithraeum when the beautifully sculpted head of Mithras, complete with Phrygian cap, was found. A reporter happened to be there and took a picture. Mithras’ beauty caused a sensation and almost half a million people came to visit the excavation.

The ensuing public outcry forced the city to abandon its original plan — the demolition of the temple to make way for ugly concrete squares of cheap mid-century offices — and come up with a compromise solution. The excavation would be extended and once the archaeologists were done, the temple remains would be removed and reinstalled a few hundred feet away at ground level so the public could enjoy it. In 1962, plan B was completed and London’s Mithraeum was reconstructed on an empty patch of land on Victoria Street. The objects discovered would go the Museum of London, except for the incredibly rare surviving wood benches and joists from the temple’s original floor, preserved in the waterlogged soil where the lost Walbrook River had once coursed. They were thrown out like so much trash.

Unfortunately plan B was poorly executed. Modern concrete was used to patch up holes and build up some of the lost masonry. The temple was not installed in its original configuration and was basically unrecognizable compared to how it had looked in situ. Things did not improve as the city grew up around it, leaving it looking like a random, weird, squat rectangle of brick and mortar benches.

In 2010, the Walbrook Square site was bought by Bloomberg LP who planned to build a grand new European HQ there. Of course they knew about the potential for archaeological remains under the site, so an in depth survey was commissoned and this time the soggy muck of the lost Walbrook River turned in an even more spectacular feat of preservation. The excavation unearthed entire city streets, large slices of Roman London from its earliest days in 40 A.D. to the final withdrawal of Roman troops in the 5th century. Wood streets, wood walls, wood wells, a wood door, thousands and thousands of assorted objects made of leather, wood, textiles as well as metal and stone. The oldest dated writing ever found in Britain was discovered on one of hundreds of Roman wood tablets from the Bloomberg dig.

The Bloomberg coporation has far deeper pockets than the small potatoes real estate developers in 1954, so it made ambitious plans to include all of these archaeological marvels in an underground display space in the Bloomberg. Not only would Roman London’s many layers be viewable to the public, but it would foot the bill to rescue the poor, benighted reconstructed temple remains from their incongruous street-level location and overmortared neglect. The temple would return to its original location, dismantled, cleaned of modern interpolations and reinstalled in situ as it had once been. There it would have the chance to be seen in its proper context, safe from the elements, and would even be reunited with another piece of the temple that was discovered during the recent excavation.

Tha planned opening date for the new Bloomberg building and its greatest of all basements was 2017, and right on schedule, the London Mithraeum at Bloomberg SPACE opens November 14th.

Michael Bloomberg, the founder of the company, said they were stewards of the ancient site and its artefacts. “London has a long history as a crossroads for culture and business, and we are building on that tradition.”

The Mithraeum incorporates a new daylit art gallery at ground level with an opening installation, Another View from Nowhen, by the Dublin artist Isabel Nolan. A huge glass case displays more than 600 of the 14,000 objects found on the site, including a wooden door, a hobnailed sandal, a tiny gladiator’s helmet carved in amber, and a wooden tablet with the oldest record of a financial transaction from Britain.

You can’t just walk in to see this archaeological treasure. Entrance is free of charge, but you must book first to guarantee entry. Click this link to book tickets, and have a poke around the website while you’re at it because it’s really very good. They worked hard to collect images and footage of the 1950s excavation and have incorporated them effectively on the site.



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Pylos warrior tomb’s tiniest treasure is its greatest

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

When the intact grave of a Bronze Age man was discovered in Pylos, southwestern Greece, two years ago, it was so dense with luxurious grave goods that it set a new record for the wealthiest single grave ever found in Greece. Its location, next to the so-called Palace of Nestor of Trojan War fame, and the richness of the contents even generated breathless speculation that this might be the tomb of a Homeric hero. Entirely groundless speculation — the shaft tomb is around 300 years older than the palace which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C. — but it’s an inescapable side-effect when archaeologists discover ivory-handled, gold-covered weapons, four gold signet rings, more than 1,000 semi-precious stone beads, silver and bronze cups, a massive gold chain, 50 seal stones decorated with Minoan motifs, carved ivory and ever so much more, enough to reignite a million childhood fantasies of pirate booty treasure maps where X always marks the spot.

Little encrusted piece before conservation. Photo courtesy the University of Cincinnati.After the dust from the dig had settled, the team, led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, had unearthed more than 3,000 burial objects, all of which were sent to the Archaeological Museum of Chora for triage, study and conservation. One of the objects was a small sort of kite-shaped piece caked in thick lime accretions entirely obscuring its surface. It was put in the To Do pile while conservators focused on the larger ticket items, like the heaps of gold, weapons and jewels.

They were finally able to beging cleaning the wee thing — it’s less than an inch and a half long — a year later and discovered that under all lime scale was one of the greatest pieces of art in Greek history. It’s a sealstone, not made of precious metals like the signet rings found in the tomb, but of agate. This one’s value is in the astonishing detail and precision in the miniature carving.

The “Pylos Combat Agate,” as the seal has come to be known for the fierce hand-to-hand battle it portrays, promises not only to rewrite the history of ancient Greek art, but to help shed light on myth and legend in an era of Western civilization still steeped in mystery. […]

Davis and Stocker say the Pylos Combat Agate’s craftsmanship and exquisite detail make it the finest discovered work of glyptic art produced in the Aegean Bronze Age.

“What is fascinating is that the representation of the human body is at a level of detail and musculature that one doesn’t find again until the classical period of Greek art 1,000 years later,” explained Davis. “It’s a spectacular find.”

Even more extraordinary, the husband-and-wife team point out, is that the meticulously carved combat scene was painstakingly etched on a piece of hard stone measuring just 3.6 centimeters, or just over 1.4 inches, in length. Indeed, many of the seal’s details, such as the intricate weaponry ornamentation and jewelry decoration, become clear only when viewed with a powerful camera lens and photomicroscopy.

“Some of the details on this are only a half-millimeter big,” said Davis. “They’re incomprehensibly small.”

The miniature masterpiece portrays a victorious warrior who, having already vanquished one unfortunate opponent sprawled at his feet, now turns his attention to another much more formidable foe, plunging his sword into the shielded man’s exposed neck in what is sure to be a final and fatal blow.

This thing is unbelievable. I think I’ve stared at the fallen fighter on the left for a solid hour.

Here is an enlarged drawing of the artwork so you can see the astonishing detail the carver was able to achieve with whatever meagre magnification options were available in 1,500 B.C. (or maybe none at all):

Beyond all the superlatives that can and should be showered upon this marvel of artistry, researchers believe the sealstone reveals new information of major significance about Minoan culture and their interactions with the Mycenaeans who so thirstily drank of Minoan culture and spread it throughout the Greek mainland.

In a series of presentations and a paper published last year, Davis and Stocker revealed that the discovery of four gold signet rings bearing highly detailed Minoan iconography, along with other Minoan-made riches found within the tomb, indicates a far greater and complex cultural interchange took place between the Mycenaeans and Minoans.

But the skill and sophistication of the Pylos Combat Agate is unparalleled by anything uncovered before from the Minoan-Mycenaean world, say the researchers. And that raises a bigger question: How does this change our understanding of Greek art in the Bronze Age?

“It seems that the Minoans were producing art of the sort that no one ever imagined they were capable of producing,” explained Davis. “It shows that their ability and interest in representational art, particularly movement and human anatomy, is beyond what it was imagined to be. Combined with the stylized features, that itself is just extraordinary.”

The revelation, he and Stocker say, prompts a reconsideration of the evolution and development of Greek art.

“This seal should be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way that prehistoric art is viewed,” said Stocker.

For more about the Griffin Warrior tomb, check out this thoroughly documented, content-rich website created by Davis and Stocker and the Pylos team. Pictures are a bit small, alas, but they need to pinch bandwidth pennies because conserving an enormous quantity of priceless archaeological artifacts is an expensive proposition, especially trying to keep the fragmentary bronze armour from falling apart. You can contribute to the project here. All donations go directly to conservation.

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Sasanian loom discovered in Northern Iraq

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the site of Gird-î Qalrakh in the Iraqi-Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah have discovered a loom from the Sasanian period, around the 5th or 6th century A.D. The loom weights, made from clay, survive in a mudbrick structure with mudbrick shelving and/or benches in the interior. (Make sure to click on the image to see it full size because everything is baked mud color and looks the same in the small pic. You can see the round loom weights with holes in them clearly on the center left of the shot in the large version.)

Sasanian and even more ancient Neo-Assyrian remains have been found at Gird-î Qalrakh since it was opened to archaeological exploration after the ouster of Sadam Hussein, but the site is still largely unexplored, an alluring terra incognita that attracted the attentions of Prof. Dirk Wicke, expert in Near Eastern Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology at Goethe University in Frankfurt. In 2015, he secured funding to lead a team of Goethe University archaeologists and students to the Shahrizor plain in Northern Iraq. This year’s six-week dig is the program’s second campaign.

The objective of the excavations on the top and slope sections of the settlement hill, some 26 meters high, was to provide as complete a sequence as possible for the region’s ceramic history. Understanding the progression in ceramics has long been a goal of research undertaken on the Shahrizor plain, a border plain of Mesopotamia with links to the ancient cultural regions of both Southern Iraq and Western Iran. These new insights will make it easier to categorise other archaeological finds chronologically. The excavation site is ideal for establishing the progression of ceramics, according to archaeology professor Dirk Wicke: “It is a small site but it features a relatively tall hill in which we have found a complete sequence of ceramic shards. It seems likely that the hill was continuously inhabited from the early 3rd millennium BC through to the Islamic period.”

However, the archaeologists had not expected to find a Sasanian loom (ca. 4th-6th century AD), whose burnt remnants, and clay loom weights in particular, were found and documented in-situ. In addition to the charred remains, there were numerous seals, probably from rolls of fabric, which indicate that large-scale textile production took place at the site. From the neo-Assyrian period (ca. 9th-7th century BC), by contrast, a solid, stone-built, terraced wall was discovered, which points to major construction work having taken place at the site. It is possible that the ancient settlement was refortified and continued to be used in the early 1st millennium BC.

That’s an extraordinary leap forward in understanding of a little known site accomplished in only six weeks, and it’s only scratching the surface. Dr. Wicke plans to return with his team next year to pick up where they left off, but first he has to ensure they have the financial support for a proper excavation and that the volatile political climate will be stable enough to keep everyone as safe as possible.

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Unique Punic War lion helmet found off Sicilian coast

Sunday, November 5th, 2017

A team of divers have made a unique discovery on the seabed off the coast of Sicily: a Punic War-era helmet with a lion decoration. It is a Montefortino helmet, a Celtic style that was spread from central Europe down the boot of Italy to Western Europe. They typically are a half ovoid shape with a small knob at the crest and cheek flaps tied under the chin by leather straps. Rome adopted the helmet style and then forcibly adopted much of the world while wearing them, so they also became known as “Roman helmets.” The lion, or possibly a lion skin posed in an aggressive stance, decorates the crest knob. This is the first lion decoration ever found on this type of helmet. The only example even vaguely in the same category had some kind of bird decoration, but it was very stylized and can’t be pinned down. The lion, on the other hand, is clearly a lion.

Marine archaeologists have dated the helmet to 241 B.C., based on some of the pottery remains at the find site, the style of the armour and the date of a battle which has proven an incalculably rich source of archaeological material from the First Punic War. Egadi, an island in the Aegadian archipelago about 4 miles off the west coast of Sicily. It was the site of one of the last naval clashes of the First Punic War. In 241 B.C., 200 Roman ships went up against 100 Carthaginian ships in the Battle of the Egadi Islands. Well, actually, the Roman ships appear to have gone up against other Roman ships, mainly, captured by Carthage in previous naval battles such as the Battle of Drepanum (249 B.C.) in which Polybius claimed 97 ships had been taken and absorbed into the Punic navy. Rome’s superior numbers took the day this time, and Carthage was soundly spanked. So soundly, in fact, that they surrendered shortly thereafter ending the First Punic War.

The net effect of Carthage’s deployment of Roman vessels is that even though Rome won the Battle of the Egadi Islands most emphatically, the ship parts, cargo and weapons strewn on the seafloor are predominantly Roman. The lion helmet could be as well, but that can’t be confirmed because of how widespread the Montefortino helmet was at the time of the First Punic War.

Possibly the lion-theme decoration can be traced back to a city allied with Rome where the influence of the myth of Hercules – who was often represented wearing lion skin on his head – was strong.

It is also possible that the lion insignia indicated a rank of authority within the Roman army at this time. “The helmets could have been worn by any number of mercenaries of South Italian or Sicilian origin. The problem is, both sides were hiring in the same areas,” Royal told Haaretz. “The Romans also wore a version of this style. Hence, some helmets were likely worn by mercenaries in service of the Carthaginians, but some may also represent Roman soldiers lost in the battle.”

Also representing shipfuls of dead Roman soldiers is the large number of bronze battering rams (rostra) which are still rare finds, but have increased geometrically thanks to Egadi’s extraordinary pile of Roman battle detritus. Out of the 13 battering rams found so far at Egadi over the past decade, only two of them have inscriptions identifying them as Carthaginian. The others have inscriptions too, but all of them in Latin.

The vicious, spiky-looking bronze battering rams are of great historical significance because of their badassness and rarity, yes, but finding so many in one place connected to a single battle has provided scholars with a unique opportunity to study the ships they used to be attached to, now long since rotted away in the balmy Mediterranean waters. The rams were fixed to the prow of ships, custom cast to ensure a perfect fit along the bows. Researchers can calculate the dimensions of the keels based on the size and shape of the rostra.

Based on those measurements, the researchers believe the ships were triremes, the principal type of warship in the Roman-era Mediterranean, which boasted three decks of oarsmen.

The archaeologists calculate that the ships could not have been more than 30 meters long and just 4.5 meter in beam, far less than the 36 meters previously estimated for the Athenian trireme. […]

In battle, the trireme was propelled solely by its 170 rowers. These wooden ships are believed to have been able to achieve a speed of 10 knots at the critical moment of impact.

Rams mounted below the waterline had three horizontal planes that would slice into their targets’ timbers, cracking the enemy ship. The dispersal of amphorae and other goods on the seabed indicates that ships were indeed sunk, but did not break up.

The lion helmet, the other helmets and battering rams recovered this season are currently being cleaned and conserved. Archaeologists to learn more about the one-of-a-kind lion helmet and to expand our understanding of Rome’s naval capabilities by studying the finds.

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Vivid color and a prosciutto clock from Pompeii

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

By a series of link-hops that began with archaic Greece and what I hope will soon be a post of its own (it all depends on whether I can get my grubby mits on good pictures), today I wound up in Pompeii. With a prosciutto. A prosciutto-shaped sundial, to be exact. It was portable, as far as we know the earliest portable sundial surviving, which is even more notable a title when you consider that it’s made out of bonze and managed to make it through the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. intact.

It dates the 1st century A.D. and was first unearthed on June 11th, 1755, in the early Bourbon-era excavations of the site of Herculaneum. The sundial was found in the House of the Papyri, a handsome private villa where a library of charred scrolls were discovered. The scrolls got the lion’s share of the attention, but the silver-gilt bronze portable sundial so recognizably shaped like a prosciutto hanging from the bone while it cures did get some love from the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, the ambitious knowledge compendium edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert.

Drawing of both sides of the sundial in Antiquita di Ercolano, 1762.The only problem is the description was not particularly accurate. (Many of the entries in the Encyclopédie left something to be desired in that arena.) The sundial was “in the form of a sleeve,” according to them. In 1762, the first scholarly work to recognize the prosciutto clock for its awesomeness was published. It was the third volume of a much less general encyclopedia — Antiqities of Herculaneum — and the authors corrected the factual errors, barely disguising their contempt that the French encyclopedists couldn’t even recognize a prosciutto when they saw one. Horologists have been discussing the ham with undiminished fervor ever since.

The sundial is now part of the permanent collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. It was briefly in New York City this spring as part of the Time and Cosmos exhibition at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. That’s where it found a new fan who introduced new technology to the investigation of the sundial.

Now the “pork clock” ticks once more. Recently re-created through 3-D printing, a high-fidelity model of the sundial is helping researchers address questions about how it was used and the information it conveyed.

The model confirms, for instance, that using the whimsical timepiece required a certain amount of finesse, says Wesleyan University’s Christopher Parslow, a professor of classical studies and Roman archaeology who made the 3-D reconstruction. All the same, “it does represent a knowledge of how the sun works, and it can be used to tell time.” […]

After Parslow was asked about the pork clock, he was inspired to build a 3-D model. He took dozens of photos of the timepiece at its home institution, Italy’s National Archaeological Museum of Naples. A 3-D printer at his university churned out the model—in plastic rather than the original silver-coated bronze—in a matter of hours.

Like the original, Parslow’s model bears a dial, in the form of a slightly distorted grid, on one side. The vertical lines are marked for the months of the year. The horizontal lines indicate the number of hours past sunrise or before sunset.

The original clock is missing its gnomon, the part of a sundial that casts a shadow, but an 18th-century museum curator described it having one in the shape of a pig’s tail, so Parslow re-created that, too.

Parslow then experimented with the sundial outdoors. The clock is hung from a string so that the sun falls on its left side, allowing the attached pig’s tail to cast a shadow across the grid.

The user aligns the clock so that the tip of the tail’s shadow falls on the vertical line for the current month. Finally, the user counts the number of horizontal lines from the top horizontal line to the horizontal line closest to the tip of the shadow. That indicates the number of hours after sunrise or before sunset.

It’s conceivable that he might even be able to tell time to the half-hour, but without the original gnomon he’s having to tinker with curly tail to get the most detailed readings, and it’s not at all clear that the device was meant to be all that precise. A portable sundial was a prestige item more than a practical one and nobody was counting billable hours in 15 minute increments.

The Prosciutto Clock led me to another extraordinary image, this one tweeted by the Pompeii Sites account. This is the collection of pigment cups left behind by painters fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., most of them with the pigments or raw materials thereof still in brilliant color.

Following the trail of Internet breadcrumbs, I found Dr. Sophie Hay’s reply to the Pompeii Sites’ tweet of the rainbow of pigment jars. She was on the team that excavated those pots, which is insanely cool. The containers and their dazzling contents came from a painter’s workshop near the House of the Chaste Lovers where an unfinished fresco, a red frame around a white square, was found. On the same insula — a large multi-use block of more than 1500 square meters with homes, retail like a bakery and wine shop, and artisan workshops — a room was found in classic Pompeiian “frozen in time” mode. Apparently before the eruption a crew was working on the hydraulic network while painters had started redecorating the frescoes in the main hall. They had just finished the preparatory drawings when something suddenly came up, almost certainly Vesuvius’ roasting hot insides. The artists must have been in a rush because they left all of the pigments, which were certainly expensive not to mention necessary to their livelihood, behind. This great find gave the structure its modern name: the House of the Painters at Work.

The House of the Chaste Lovers, named after a completed fresco depicting a modest kiss at a dinner, belonged to wealthy baker (the bakery storefront next door was apparently his) and is an exceptional survival in a lot of ways. It’s one of very few two-story buildings in Pompeii with the second story still attached to it. The bakery’s oven and millstones are intact, as are two of its stables, complete with skeletal remains of seven animals. It has been excavated off and on since 1982, and the public have only been allowed in on very rare occasions. The week of Valentine’s Day this year was one those occasions, a tribute to the famous fresco with its sweet kiss on the reclining couch.

The pigment bowls were no longer in situ by then. In 2014, Professor Massimo Osanna, Director General of the Pompeii archaeological site, deposited the entire collection of pigments cups in the Laboratory of Applied Research which specializes in the study and conservation of Pompeii’s unique combination of archaeological materials, including organic, mineral and lithic remains. It has a state-of-the-art climate control system to keep the most delicate remains from degrading, and is therefore best equipped to preserve the vivid color of the ancient pigments.

Graphic artist Gareth Blayney made a series of drawings of how the shopfronts might have looked before the Vesuvian apocalypse for Dr. Hay and they are all beautiful, but the one of the paint shop truly does the riot of pigment jars justice.

Gareth Blayney: Pompeii Prints &emdash;

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Pictish stone with fearsome derriere found

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

Pictish stones are usually abstract designs or animal figures that are stylized enough to look abstract to the untrained eye. That’s why they’re known as “symbol stones,” and why even experts don’t know what all of the symbols recorded from the 350 or so known Pictish stones represent. One theory is that they could be a sort of proto-heraldic assemblage identifying these large, imposing standing stones as the mark an important local family.

Roadwork on the A9/A85 highway in Perth, Scotland, has unearthed a Pictish Symbol Stone in which the symbol is a man, not a V-notch, not a circle, not something that could be an eagle if you squint at it long enough, but a clear outline drawing of a man carrying a spear in his right hand and a club or staff in his left. He is large and physically imposing and while he is wearing a cloak and shoes, the clothing is kept to a minimum in such a manner to emphasize his powerful glutes and quads. He is also sporting an unusual hairstyle: the front, and only the front, of his scalp is shaved. Other facial features have worn away, but from what little is left, it seems his nose was large and in charge.

There is no precise date for the stone as of yet. The spear he carries is of a type used in the middle of the 1st millennium A.D., which is a broad enough range to not tell us a great deal. If it’s actually 500 A.D., that is early for Pictish stones. There are no known Pictish sites in the area, which makes the discovery of this stone all the more significant. It may even refer to a specific local potentate.

A spokesperson for Perth and Kinross Council said: “The fearsome figure probably served to warn travellers and visitors that they were approaching his residence or territory.

“The study of the carving and what it can reveal about life in Pictish Scotland will continue. The Scottish Treasure Trove has been notified and the carving will be allocated to a museum in due course.

“After an inspection of the find spot, no further archaeological works were considered necessary and the roadworks have resumed.”

Mark Hall of the Perth Museum and Art Gallery was called in to the worksite when the stone was discovered. He documented it thoroughly in situ before it was removed and roadwork continued. The stone is now being kept at a mysterious undisclosed location where it will be studied and conserved while the Treasure Trove committee revs into gear and makes the decision everyone knows it’s going to make anyway. Obviously the ancient stone will be declared treasure. Then the only question is which museum will get to keep it.

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Irving Finkel on how to raise the dead

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

If you thought Irving Finkel, the British Museum’s Middle East curator and foremost cuneiform expert, outdid himself in that video where he played the Royal Game of Ur, you’re going to love his Halloween themed video. In it he summarizes in his characterstically witty style the inscructions for necromancy, raising the dead for the purpose of foretelling the future, found on a tablet (K.2779) in the British Museum.

Written in Neo-Babylonian in the 7th century B.C., the tablet was one of tens of thousands discovered at Nineveh that were part of what is known as the Library of Ashurbanipal. Only the top half of it and a few fragments have survived so we don’t have the full recipe for conjuring the spirits of the dead, sad to say, and there are a few lines of magical incantantions that are untranslatable because they were written in what scholars think may be a mixed-up kind of Sumerian seeing as by the 1st milennium B.C. nobody could speak the real thing anymore. This kind of magic-speak has been found on tablets before, including ones dealing with necromancy.

There aren’t a great many specifically dedicated to the raising of ghosts and questioning them, interestingly enough. The namburbi genre this tablet is a part of usually deals with warnings and magic to repel ghosts and contain the damage they can do. Tablet 2779 is unusual in that it covers both subjects: how to raise the ghost and then how to prevent its evil from harming the home and its residents. As it was not incised in Nineveh, it’s likely the tablet was brought to the library in a deliberate attempt to flesh out the collection in subject areas that were sparsely covered.

Here’s a translation of the surviving cuneiform from K.2279, minus the couple of lines of untranslatable verse:

An incantation to enable a man to see a ghost.

Its ritual: (you crush) mouldy wood, fresh leaves of Euphrates poplar in water, oil, beer (and) wine. You dry, crush and sieve snake-tallow, lion-tallow, crab-tallow, white honey, a frog (that lives) among the pebbles, hair of a dog, hair of a cat, hair of a fox, bristle of a chameleon (and) bristle of a (red) lizard, “claw” of a frog, end-of-intestines of a frog, the left wing of a grasshopper, (and) marrow from the long bone of a goose. You mix (all this) (in) wine, water (and) milk with amhara plant. You recite the incantation three times and you anoint your eyes (with it) and you will see the ghost: he will speak with you. You can look at the ghost: he will talk with you.

In order to avert the evil (inherent) in a ghost’s cry you (sic) crush a potsherd from a ruined tell in water. He should sprinkle the house (with this water). For three days he should make offerings to the family ghosts.

He should pour out beer (flavoured with) roast barley. He should scatter juniper over a censer before Samas, pour out prime beer, offer a resent to Samas, and recite as follows:

O Samas, Judge of Heaven and Underworld, Foremost One of the Anunnaki!
O Samas, Judge of all the Lands, Samas Foremost and Resplendent One!
You keep them in check, O Samas, the Judge. You carry those from Above down to Below,
Those from Below up to Above. The ghost who has cried out in my house, whether of (my) father or mother, whether (my) brother or sister,
Whether a forgotten son of someone, whether a vagrant ghost show has no-one to care for it,
An offering has been made for him! Water has been poured out for him! May the evil in his cry away behin him!
Let the evil in his evil cry not come near me! <…> You do this repeatedly for three days, and <…>

You wash his hands, you anoint him with U.SIKIL: “It is finished”: in oil.

I love that they pour out beer for him. Very 90s rap.

The only negative thing I can say about Finkel’s explanation of the tablet is that it’s way too short. I’m hoping he does what he did with Ur and films himself actually performing the ritual. He’s already scared up a suitable skull (Mesopotamian, one hopes, although there is nothing in the literature that suggests the skulls used in these rituals needed to have belonged to any specific individual, group or time period). It’s just the ingredients for the magical brew he’s having difficulty obtaining. That, Dr. Finkel, is what the Internet is for. All you need is a little viral luck and within days you will be inundated with sufficient snake tallow, frog end-of-intestines and chameleon bristles to raise an army of the dead.

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