Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Queen Nefertari’s legs likely identified

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

A pair of dismembered mummy legs found in Queen Nefertari’s tomb (QV66) in the Valley of the Queens likely belonged to the queen herself, new research indicates.

Nefertari was the second and favorite Great Royal Wife of Pharaoh Ramesses II (r. 1279-1213 B.C.). Ramesses the Great so loved Nefertari that he built a temple to her next to his at Abu Simbel. Her colossal figures are the same size as his, a symbol of the immense respect and status he granted her. His love for her is literally painted on the walls of her tomb. Poetry he wrote praising and mourning her (“My love is unique — no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart.”) shares space with scenes from the Book of the Dead, Nefertari in he daily life and the afterlife.

Queen Nefertari’s tomb was discovered in 1904 by preeminent Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli. (If that name rings a bell, it’s because he was a member of an illustrious family of brilliant people including his cousin astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli who first observed the channels on Mars, and Giovanni’s niece Elsa Schiaparelli, the dazzlingly innovative fashion designer who invented much of what we take for granted in the industry today.) One of the largest tombs in the Valley of the Queens, its elaborately painted walls survive in beautiful condition earning it the moniker of the Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt, but the contents of the tomb had been looted and trashed in antiquity. All that was left inside were some small objects (broken pottery, 34 wood shabtis, coffer lids, a faience pommel knob bearing King Ay’s throne name “Kheper-Kheperu-Ra”), fragment of her pink granite sarcophagus, broken furniture, a pair of very fine sandals woven from vegetal fiber and two mummified human legs broken in pieces.

The remains are in three parts: one long leg piece composed of a patella and part of a femur and tibia, a medium piece composed of part of a tibia, and a short piece of a femur. Because Schiaparelli was the director of the Museo Egizio in Turin from 1894 until his death in 1928, the finds he’d made over 20 years of excavations in Egypt were added to the museum’s collection, among them the contents of QV66, including the mummy legs. Today the Museo Egizio houses more than 300,000 objects making it the second largest Egyptian museum in the world. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is number one, of course.

Because they were found in Nefertari’s tomb, which is thoroughly identified as such from inscriptions on the walls and surviving artifacts, the legs were believed to be the remains of the queen, but they’ve never been scientifically studied until now. A multidisciplinary team subjected the legs to radiocarbon dating, X-rays, osteological analysis, DNA testing, anthropological comparison, chemical analysis and historical research.

Anthropometric reconstruction and assessment of the size of the knees revealed they belonged to a woman whose stature ranged between 165 cm (5 foot 5 inches) and 168 cm (5 foot 6 inches).

The body height was also independently estimated by professor Maciej Henneberg at the University of Adelaide, Australia, who obtained the same results — a stature of about 165 cm.

“Data about women from the New Kingdom and 3rd Intermediate Period show she was probably taller than 84 percent of the women of her time,” Rühli said.

Analysis of the materials used for embalming showed they were consistent with Ramesside mummification traditions, while X-rays of the left knee pointed to possible traces of arteriosclerosis, suggesting the legs belonged to an elderly person.

“The accumulated evidence could point to an individual between 40 and 60 years old,” Rühli and colleagues wrote.

That matches the Egyptological research into Nefertari’s age and approximate time of death around the 25th year of her husband’s long, long reign. The size of the sandals found in the tomb also match the stature and dimensions of the legs. Their quality suggests royal use as well.

Unfortunately, no useable DNA could be extracted — the samples were too contaminated — so there will be no genetic information forthcoming. Radiocarbon dating results indicated the remains were around two centuries older than Queen Nefertari going by the current chronology.

“A discrepancy between radiocarbon dating and Egyptian chronology models has long been debated. Indeed, some question on the chronological model of the New Kingdom may now arise,” Habicht said.

“For the future, we strongly suggest radiocarbon dating of other royal and non-royal remains of the Ramesside era, in order to validate or disprove the chronology,” he added.

You can read the full study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Freaking huge gold torc found in Cambridgeshire

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

The British Museum just released its annual Treasure and Portable Antiquities Scheme report which announces archaeological findings made by members of the public in the preceding year. Among the whopping 82,272 finds reported in 2015 was a gold torc so huge it defies comprehension. Discovered by a metal detectorist on freshly ploughed farmland in East Cambridgeshire in September of last year, it is a four-flange spiral twisted bar torc dating to around 1300-1100 B.C., the Middle Bronze Age. Not counting the trumpet-shaped terminals at each end, the twisted bar is an exceptional 126.5cm (4’2″) long. The terminals are 108 and 107mm long, so just over four inches each, bringing the total length to more than 4’10″. At 732 grams (1.6 pounds) in weight, it is one of the heaviest bar torcs ever found in Britain and Ireland.

The find site is within 50 miles of Must Farm, the extraordinary bronze age village in the shadow of a chip factory on the edge of Peterborough.

“There was a lot going on in bronze age East Anglia,” said Neil Wilkin, the curator of bronze age Europe at the British Museum, “but it’s been a while since we’ve had anything as hefty as this.”

The torc is of the highest quality in materials and manufacture. It’s made of 86-87% gold and 12-13% silver (the remainder is copper), so 20-21 carat gold by modern standards. The four flanges are between 3.3 and 5mm long and are twisted counter-clockwise so expertly that the gap between them is consistently between 2.25 and 2.5mm for the entire length of the bar. Circular collars are fitted seamlessly between the bar and each terminal. How exactly they were mounted archaeologists haven’t been able to figure out yet, possibly by use of a solder with a different melting point than the gold of the bar and terminals, but tests have found no variation in the gold composition down the entire length of the torc, so if solder was used, it must have been incredibly subtle.

Torcs are usually thought of as jewelry worn around the neck, but unless there was an exceedingly wealthy and stylish Triceratops roaming around Bronze Age Cambridgeshire, this one cannot have been. It couldn’t have even been worn around someone’s waist. Because flange twisted torcs have never been found in burials, archaeologists don’t have any evidence to go on to determine how these giant torcs were worn. Suggestions include that it was worn as a sash, around the body from shoulder to hip, or possibly around the belly of a very pregnant woman as a protective talisman. It may even have adorned sacrificial sheep or goats.

The finder, who has chosen to remain anonymous, did not record the torc as he or she first found it so all experts have to go on is the finder’s vague description of it as “loosely bundled.” It was coiled but someone, and no one is naming names, opened it up into a single large loop and crossed the terminals before the discovery was reported to the Finds Liaison Officer.

The torc was reported to Helen Fowler at a finds meeting at Peterborough Museum, who said she was “gobsmacked” when it came out of the finder’s briefcase. The last torc she had handled was bracelet sized, but this one was far too big to fit on her weighing scales and she had to borrow a box from the museum to take it back to her office.

In addition to making it unwieldy, hard to weigh and materially altering a malleable, delicate archaeological treasure for no conceivable reason, the uncoiling damaged the flanges. In two places — about one third and two thirds along the length of the bar — the flanges are now distorted. In one of the spots, the edges of five twists have been scraped through the outer layer, exposing fresh gold. British Museum experts hope they’ll be able to figure out the original position of the torc at burial by examining the distorted places.

The torc has yet to be valued — a similar but smaller large-scale bar torc discovered in a bog in Northern Ireland in 2009 was valued at £150,000 — but whatever the final assessment, the Ely Museum hopes to acquire it.

Because your friendly neighborhood history blogger would never be so cruel as to report on a freaking huge gold torc without freaking huge pictures of said gold torc, your browser should probably stretch and do some light warm-ups before you click on these:


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3,800-year-old Canaanite “Thinker” figurine found in Israel

Saturday, November 26th, 2016

An excavation in Yehud, Israel, prior to construction of new housing has unearthed a unique ancient pottery jug topped with a figurine in a reflective posture reminiscent of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” The clay vessel was discovered on the last day of the dig by a team of professional archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority and very fortunate high school students in an archaeology-themed matriculation stream. It was one of several artifacts and remains — daggers, arrowheads, an axe head, sheep bones and the bones of another animal, probably a donkey — found with the jug. Archaeologists believe at least some of these were funerary offerings for a prominent individual, and an extraordinarily rich array of grave goods at that.

The pot-bellied jug with a spigot on one side of the neck is of a shape and style common to the Middle Bronze Age period about 3,800 years ago, but the figurine attached to the neck is one of a kind. Nothing like it has been found before. The figurine appears to have been added after the basic vessel was complete. Archaeologists aren’t sure if the same potter who made the jug also created the figurine. It’s possible a second artisan created it, using the neck of the jug as the torso of the figure and then adding the arms, leg and face.

The figure sits on top of the jug, his knees bent and left arm crossing both knees. His right arm is bent, elbow behind the other arm on his knee, his hand holding his chin as if he is deep in thought. The degree of detail is exceptional and very unusual for pottery of the period.

The students who got to see this charming figure excavated are thrilled.

“Suddenly I saw many archaeologists and important people arriving who were examining and admiring something that was uncovered in the ground” recalls Ronnie Krisher, a pupil in the Land of Israel and Archaeology stream in the Roeh religious girls high school in Ramat Gan. “They immediately called all of us to look at the amazing statuette and explained to us that this is an extremely rare discovery and one that is not encountered every day. It is exciting to be part of an excavation whose artifacts will be displayed in the museum”.

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Remains of 1,500-year-old domesticated turkeys found in Mexico

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered some of the earliest evidence of turkey domestication during an excavation of the ancient Mitla Fortress in Oaxaca, Mexico. The Field Museum has been exploring the hilltop fort in the Valley of Oaxaca that was inhabited by the Zapotec from the Classic period (200-850 A.D.) until around 1200 A.D. In 2009, the team unearthed a clutch of intact turkey eggs buried under two of the fortress’ households.

“It was very exciting because it’s very rare to find a whole cluster of intact eggs. This was very unexpected,” says [Field Museum archaeologist Gary] Feinman.

“Heather Lapham is an archaeologist who studies animal bones, and she knew immediately that we had found five intact or unhatched eggs that were left as an offering alongside seven newly hatched baby turkeys, of which only their tiny bones survived,” says Feinman. Scanning electron microscope analysis of the eggshells confirmed that they were indeed laid by turkeys.

“The fact that we see a full clutch of unhatched turkey eggs, along with other juvenile and adult turkey bones nearby, tells us that these birds were domesticated,” says Feinman. “It helps to confirm historical information about the use of turkeys in the area.”

The Zapotec made sacrifices to the gods before constructing a new house, and a turkey hatchling was sometimes the blood sacrifice of choice. The animal would be killed, its meat eaten and the remains buried under the floor. To have such a wide range of turkeys at every stage of development — hatched and unhatched eggs, unfertilized, newly fertilized eggs, almost hatched eggs, newly hatched poults, juveniles, adults, hens, including at least one of egg-laying age, and toms — available for ritual use in their home, the Zapotec must have had a breeding operation nearby.

The eggs date to between 400 and 500 A.D., which is the earliest concrete archaeological evidence of domesticated turkeys in southern Mexico. The oldest turkey bone found in southern Mexico dates to 180 A.D., but it’s just a single bone and was found in a cave, so there is no direct evidence that it was domesticated. The oldest confirmed evidence of tamed turkeys in northern Mexico date to 500 A.D., but these are scarce. The preponderance of domesticated turkey remains begin appearing in the archaeological record in 900 A.D.

In addition to the sacrificial turkeys, the team also discovered eggshells and more than 300 bones of juvenile and adult turkeys in household trash pits. A hundred or so more turkey bones were found carved into jewelry or tools.

The research team has DNA tested to the remains to identify which subspecies of native turkey they belong to, but the results have not come in yet. Their findings have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Happy You-Know-What Day, all!

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New scan of crocodile mummies find 47 more

Monday, November 21st, 2016

After 17 months of renovations, the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden opened their new Egyptian galleries on November 18th. As part of the remodelling project, the museum installed 3D visualisation stations so visitors can explore mummies in the kind of extreme detail that would be otherwise be impossible. The system uses high resolution CT scans to create composite models of mummies in the collection that museum visitors can virtually unwrap on a touch screen. They can peel back every layer, examine the mummies’ features and the amulets placed in the linen wrappers from every angle. It’s the same principle as the extremely cool virtual autopsy table the British Museum created for Gebelein Man.

During the renovation, the museum worked with Swedish visualization company Interspectral to scan their mummies and create the virtual models. One of the mummies scanned appeared to be that of a giant crocodile, a representation of the crocodile god Sobek that has been in the museum’s collection since 1828. A scan in 1996 had already determined that it wasn’t one huge crocodile, but rather two adolescent crocodiles, one larger, one smaller, positioned tail to snout and then wrapped as one.

Because of the earlier scan, curators weren’t expecting to discover any new information about the mummy, but the high resolution technology revealed that there weren’t just two crocodiles wrapped in linen; there were 49, 47 of them hatchlings. Each of the babies was individually wrapped in linen bandages, placed around the adolescent crocodiles and the whole lot were bound together with palm rope to create the impression of a single 10-foot crocodile mummy. Scans have found baby crocs mummified with adults before — as with this Sobek mummy at the British Museum, for instance — but only one other example of baby crocs wrapped with adults in a palm robe binding is known.

The museum’s Egyptologists suspect that the crocodiles of different ages were mummified together as a reference to the ancient Egyptian belief in rejuvenation and new life after death. Another possibility is that no large crocodiles were available at a time when they were needed as offerings to the gods. The mummy was given the shape of one large crocodile with various kinds of stuffing: bits of wood, wads of linen, plant stems, and rope.

The museum doesn’t know where the crocodile mummy came from. Faiyum is a likely candidate because it was a center for the worship of Sobek and the Nile crocodile. Because the sacred crocodiles were bred and raised specifically for mummification and dedication to the deity as votive offerings, it’s possible the hatchlings were related. Crocodiles lay around 50 eggs at a time, so this may have been a single litter.

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Pristine cartonnage sarcophagus found in Luxor

Friday, November 18th, 2016

Thutmose III, the 18th Dynasty pharaoh who ruled for 54 years (1479- 1425 B.C., the first 22 years as co-regent with his stepmother Hatchepsut) and whose military conquests greatly expanded Egypt’s empire. Because of his extraordinary successes on the battlefield, he is known as Egypt’s Napoleon. His mortuary temple at Al-Deir Al-Bahari in Luxor on the left bank of the Nile was built above a Middle Kingdom necropolis and there are tombs and structures from multiple periods on the site. As a result, excavations have revealed a fascinating cross-section of architecture, funerary environments, housing and artifacts that provide a unique glimpse into more than a thousand years of life and death in ancient Thebes.

The Temple of Millions of Years of the Pharaoh Thutmose III project is a joint mission of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and the Academy of Fine Arts Santa Isabel of Hungary of Seville, headed by Spanish Egyptologist Dr. Myriam Seco Álvarez. Its ninth field season started this fall and the team excavated a tomb on the exterior of the temple’s southern wall. Inside the tomb archaeologists discovered a cartonnage sarcophagus in pristine condition.

The wooden outer coffin was badly damaged, but the delicate the plaster and linen sarcophagus within is painted in brilliant colors and the decoration is almost entirely intact. Cartonnage is easily destroyed, even in the hot, dry desert environment, often by insects. Other tombs excavated at the temple site had little left of their cartonnage sarcophaguses because termites had feasted upon them. Extensive looting in antiquity also damaged the coffins and mummified human remains in the destructive search for easily saleable artifacts.

Álvarez said out that the cartonnage includes its almost complete polychrome painted decoration and inscriptions with some of the most characteristic symbols and elements of the ancient Egyptian religion.

Among these inscriptions are solar symbols, the protective goddesses Isis and Nephthys with spread wings, hawks and the four sons of Horus, executed in artisanal quality of the highest order.

According to Myriam Seco Álvarez, inscriptions suggest the cartonnage sarcophagus contains the mummy of a royal servant named Amenrenef. It’s not clear what his duties were, just that he was attached to the pharaoh’s household. He must have been a person of high rank and wealth because the painting is the work of the best and most expensive artisans. Preliminary analysis indicates the tomb dates to the Third Intermediate Period (1070-712 BC), so he would not have been a servant of Thutmose III’s. The team hopes to discover what possible connection he made have had with the long-deceased pharaoh that caused him to be buried adjacent to the temple. Since they have his name, they are hoping to find references to him in other documentary or archaeological sources.

The investigation into Amenrenef will begin only after the excavation season closes and the immediate conservation needs of the sarcophagus are met. The coffin will also be scanned to determine the condition of the mummy within, and, fingers crossed, to discover more information about Amenrenf from inscriptions and/or artifacts buried with him. Hopefully they will also find out more about his physical condition — age, health, possible cause of death.

When conservation and the investigation into its owner is complete, the splendid cartonnage sarcophagus will likely go on display at the Luxor Museum.

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Renewed Circus Maximus reopens after 6 years

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

According to Livy’s account of early Roman history in Ab Urbe Condita, the first iteration of the Circus Maximus was built in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills by Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the legendary fifth king of Rome, in the 6th century B.C.

Then for the first time a space was marked for what is now the “Circus Maximus.” Spots were allotted to the patricians and knights where they could each build for themselves stands – called “ford” – from which to view the Games. These stands were raised on wooden props, branching out at the top, twelve feet high. The contests were horse-racing and boxing, the horses and boxers mostly brought from Etruria. They were at first celebrated on occasions of especial solemnity; subsequently they became an annual fixture, and were called indifferently the “Roman” or the “Great Games.”

There’s no archaeological evidence for this (or for much of an anything else to do with the putative kings of Rome, for that matter). The low-lying area would have been subject to regular flooding and was probably farmland. A drainage system would have made it possible for the field to be used for horse races, but the wooden stands were temporary and rebuilt many times. Permanent wooden seating was built in 329 B.C.; the first stone seating (for senators, of course) was built in the 190s B.C.

It was Julius Caesar’s ambitious building program that developed the Circus Maximus into something more akin to our image of it. He built stands on both sides down the full length of the track, with the trackside seating reserved for senators. Equites (knights) got the next rows and the plebs got the nosebleed seats. There were shops under the galleries where sports fans could get a bite or place a bet. It was all still wood, though, and was seriously damaged by fire in 31 B.C. and the great conflagration of 64 A.D. during which Nero so notoriously strummed the lyre. The stone Circus Maximus as we know it now was built by Trajan in the first years of the 2nd century and commemorated on a bronze sestertius minted from 103 to 111 A.D. At its largest, it was 600 yards long and 140 yards wide and could seat a quarter of a million people.

When I lived in Rome in the 80s, the Circus Maximus was open, but there wasn’t much to see. You could picnic on the grassy slopes which once held stone and wood bleachers, go jogging, walk your dog. At night it was something of a shady place frequented by the demimonde, as it were. More recently it’s been a venue for concerts and other public events. It was basically a large oval field with some bits in the middle and at the ends. In 2009, the city initiated a program of excavation and restoration to create an archaeological park worthy of such a great icon of the Eternal City. While excavations will continue, the newly revived Circus Maximus is now open to visitors.

The excavation has uncovered many artifacts and structures long obscured by the overgrowth. Archaeologists have found more than 1,000 bronze coins, fragments of gold jewelry, and perhaps most excitingly, the bottom of a glass goblet with the image and name of a horse engraved in gold. Named after the legendary king of Alba Longa, descendant of Aeneas of Troy and grandfather of Romulus and Remus, Numitor the horse holds a golden palm branch in his mouth, attribute of the goddess Victory. This is the first time any kind of horse-related artifact has been found at the stadium which held chariot races for 1,000 years. The image of Numitor the lucky horse will be the new logo of the Circus Maximus.

A wealth of architectural remains have been revealed on the Palatine end of the track. Visitors will now be able to walk two stories of galleries: the lower one that senators walked to reach their trackside seats and the upper one the plebs used to reach their bleachers. From there, they can walk along the paved road unearthed during the recent excavations which features a large water trough made of travertine slabs. They can see the latrines used by the same ancient audience members, and the shop fronts, brothels, money changers and betting parlors underneath the galleries.

The Torre della Moletta, the 12th century tower built by the powerful Frangipani family as part of a fortification system that extended up the Palatine, has been restored and a new staircase added to the interior so visitors can climb to the top of the tower and enjoy a spectacular view of the Circus Maximus. In the hemicycle behind the tower, large marble fragments of the ancient structure discovered during the excavations have been tidily arranged in the grassy space: steps, cornices, column capitals, thresholds of shops, marble columns and the architectural elements of the triumphal arch of Titus discovered last year. Some of the bronze letters of the inscription dedicating the arch to Titus’ conquest of Judea — previously known only from a 9th century transcription — were found during the excavation, a wonderful surprise given how much ancient bronze was melted down in the Middle Ages.

Archaeologists plan to continue excavations. They are hopeful that something of the ancient spina, the central strip that in its heyday boasted two Egyptian obelisks, an altar to the gods and the lap counters (first egg-shaped, later dolphins) so memorably portrayed on the screen in Ben Hur, might still slumber under the earth. Maybe the remnants of the original track or drainage system are down there 30 feet underground. Any discovery at all from the archaic era would be a massive archaeological bonanza.

The Circus Maximus will be open to tourists (tickets cost three to five euros) every day from now through December 11th. After that it will be open on weekends only, weekdays by appointment.

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Roman pot filled with lamps found in Switzerland

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the site of a Roman fort and civilian settlement in the northern Swiss city of Windisch have unearthed an unusual hoard: a cooking pot filled with lamps, each containing a single bronze coin. What is now the Zürcherstrasse, one of Windisch’s busiest streets, in the first century A.D. was the defensive wall of the Roman legionary camp of Vindonissa. It was established in the province of Germania Superior around 15 A.D. and was occupied by various legions until 101 A.D., after which it was integrated into the civilian settlement. The ancient town was inhabited through the 5th century.

The Aargau Canton archaeology department has been excavating the site south of Zürcherstrasse where a multi-use development with underground garage will be constructed, since 2013. They’ve discovered the remains of defensive earthworks, well-preserved stone buildings, fireplaces, a latrine pit and a deep brick shaft.

It was in the brick shaft that archaeologists found the pot, the kind of quotidian vessel the legionaries at Vindonissa would have used to cook their food, entirely intact and in exceptionally good condition. Inside were 22 oil lamps. They too were implements used by regular people in their daily life. They were filled with oil and lit at the spout end. Produced in enormous quantities and sold all over the empire, the lamps were often decorated on the top side with designs which would glow in the light. The lamps collected inside the pot are decorated with a variety of motifs: a flower, the moon goddess Luna, a winged Cupid, a defeated gladiator, a lion, a peacock, even an erotic scene.

An as, a bronze coin that was lowest value currency in the early Roman Empire, was placed inside each lamp. Almost all of the coins date to 66 and 67 A.D., a range that fits the style of the cooking pot and lamps. Because asses were of such low value, their inclusion in this odd assemblage is likely symbolic.

“What astonished us was the quantity and the combination of coins and lamps,” said Aargau cantonal archaeologist Georg Matter.

“We suspect this is a ritual burial,” he said, but stressed that was only speculation since there haven’t been any other comparable discoveries.

The pot also contained charred fragments of animal bones, ruling it out as a urn for human remains.

“The intentions behind this burial are puzzling at the moment,” added Matter.

The pot has been fully excavated in the laboratory, the lamps catalogued and photographed. Next on the schedule is examination of the coins by numismatic experts and the analysis of the bone fragments.

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Huge Gallo-Roman villa found in Brittany

Monday, November 7th, 2016

A preventative excavation of a site in the village of Langrolay-sur-Rance near Dinan in Brittany, northwestern France, has unearthed a huge Gallo-Roman villa. Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventative Archaeology (INRAP) began excavating the 2.3 hectare site, the future location of a subdivision, in July 2016. They discovered multiple structures arranged in a u-shape around a central courtyard with colonnaded galleries on three sides. This was the pars urbana (the residential section) of a great villa and this section alone covered 1,500 square meters (16,000 square feet).

The main part of the house was built on a plateau with a beautiful view of the Rance river. The secondary structure faced south and was constantly flooded by sunlight. The third structure may have been used as stable. The courtyard and areas surrounding the buildings were landscaped gardens. Coins found at the villa indicate it was originally constructed in the 1st century A.D., it was altered and expanded over the years and was in use at least through the 4th century.

The most impressive testament to how exceptionally luxurious this villa was is its personal bath complex. At more than 400 square meters (4,300 square feet), it included a shallow foot bath, a warm pool, a cool pool, and a large caldarium, the hottest room in the complex, that had both a hot tub and a sauna. Bathers would start out with the foot bath, then take a dip in the cold and warm pools. Once washed, they’d move on to the caldarium to work up a proper sweat. They’d wash again and get a massage in the warm room and finish with a pore-closing cold bath. The private homes of the rich often had bathing facilities, but such a large, complex one is rare.

Unlike the rest of the villa of which only the foundations and patches of concrete floors have survived, walls and floors of the bath complex are extant, including the tile stacks that raised the floor to allow the hypocaust system to heat the warm rooms. The walls were decorated with frescoes inlaid with shell, a characteristic Armorican style developed beginning in the 3rd century A.D. White, red, green, blue or yellow shells of different species would be embedded in fresh mortar to create intricate designs. Because the mortar had to be wet when the shells were applied, many workers applied themselves to the task at the same time. A few fragments of decorative shell have been found at 23 ancient sites in western France, but only two of those were large enough to make it possible to piece together the pattern of decoration. The remains discovered at Langrolay are unprecedented in their size and quality.

Such a massive villa was likely the country home of a very rich and politically prominent noble family, probably of the Curiosolitae people. The nearby village of Corseul is believed to have been the capital of the Curiosolitae (the naming of the main town after the people was a Gallic convention) and remains of the ancient Roman city of Fanum Martis have been discovered there. The villa would have been an easily accessible half-day’s ride from the city about eight miles away. It could also have been reached by river, a short boat trip up the Rance.

The excavation was originally scheduled to be finished by the end of November, with whatever could be salvaged removed from the site and the rest destroyed to make way for the undoubtedly unworthy subdivision. The discovery caused a sensation, however. When it was opened to the public on September 17th and 18th, more than 6,000 people visited it. The construction plan is going to be revised, as the city council voted to conserve the thermal baths in situ. For now, the site will be reburied for its own protection.

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120 boats carved on building near pharaoh’s tomb

Friday, November 4th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the mortuary complex of 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Senwosret III (r. 1878-1841 B.C.) in Abydos have unearthed a building with more than 120 drawings of boats incised on the walls. The structure was first discovered in 1901-2 during the excavation of the tomb of Senwosret III by archaeologist Arthur Weigall. He was only able to excavate the part of the barrel-vaulted roof before the mudbrick vault collapsed when he attempted to clear the debris underneath it. He caught a glimpse of a few boat drawings at the top of the whitewashed walls.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum has been excavating the complex, one of the largest royal necropoli ever built in Egypt, since 1994. In the 2014 dig season, the team finally got the building that had remained untouched since Weigall’s abortive attempt at excavation. The interior was excavated in 2014, and the front of the building from November 2015 until January 2016. Unfortunately the surviving edges of the vaulted roof were angled inwards and under pressure from exterior brickwork and limestone blocks. They could not be preserved. The team carefully removed them in order to be able to excavate the interior.

Once the remains of the barrel vault were removed, archaeologists could see a crowded tableau of nautical designs incised on all three surviving walls. The dense cluster of images cover 82 feet, carved into the gypsum plaster surface of the interior walls. Details depictions of ships, sails, masts, oars, . Making less frequent of a presence are some animal figures — – more roughly drawn than many of the ships.

The boat images range significantly in size and complexity. At the upper end of the variation are large, well-rendered boats depicted with masts, sails, rigging, deckhouses/cabins, rudders, oars, and in some cases rowers. At the lower end of the range are highly simplified boats, schematically rendered as one or two curving lines depicting a hull, surmounted by a schematized rectangular deckhouse, but devoid of other details. The size of the drawings varies. The larger boats measure nearly 1.5 m in length. Smaller examples measure only c.0.08–0.10 m. Interspersed among the boat images are occasional depictions of animals and other figural elements: cattle, gazelles and floral designs. The imagery in the tableau can be broadly subdivided as follows: 1) simple curved boat hulls of one or two lines and a rudimentary rectangular cabin; 2) boats with a rectangular cabin, and/or rudder and oars but no mast; 3) boats with a rectangular cabin, masts and rigging with the sail furled; 4) boats with a rectangular cabin, masts and rigging and sail unfurled; 5) boats with a rectangular cabin, masts, rudders and oars as well as human rowers; 6) cattle; 7) gazelles; and 8) floral/lotus motifs.

The commonalities between the carvings — they’re mostly masted ships, they have raised prows and sterns, there are cabins on the decks — indicate they were all done around the same time, albeit by different hands of differing abilities. The building is subterranean and the entrance was sealed with mortared bricks more than three feet thick, so the carvers couldn’t have come in after the boat was buried and building closed off. It’s more likely the structure was built, but the burial still not concluded when they added their decorative flavors.

Weigall thought the building was a tomb constructed significantly after Senwosret’s — not a wild conjecture given that the tombs of three 13th Dynasty pharaohs were added to the complex as were eight royal tombs from the late Second Intermediate Period — but the mudbricks of the boat building are the exact same size and material as of those used in Senwosret III tomb enclosure. The exceptional quality of construction also confirms this building dates to the period when Senwosret’s tomb complex was being built, around 1850 B.C.

They also found a very good reason for the motif. The building was not a tomb, as Weigall had thought, but a boat burial, likely one of several associated with the tomb of Senwosret III, a fleet to accompany him to the afterlife. The long hall has a central cavity with sloping sides cut into the desert floor for the full length of the building. Archaeologists believe this is a hull cavity, meaning the ship was buried intact rather than in pieces. Surviving wood planking fragments have been found, albeit in very poor condition. The usual preservative powers of the desert were powerless against the armies of white ants that gorged on the wood. What’s left needs very cautious handling and stabilization before it can be analyzed for age and wood type, but the size and dimensions match those of cedar deck planking found at the pyramid complex of Senwosret III at Dahshur.

A report on the findings has been published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, and can be read in its entirety free of charge here.

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