Hercules emperor mini-update

Preliminary cleaning and conservation of the statue of a Hercules-clad emperor found on January 23rd in the Appia Antica Archaeological Park has begun, and it’s remarkable what an effect tiny sharp scraping tools and water can achieve. 

First a bit of bad news. Something I suspected when first seeing the pictures but none of the original stories on the find stated is that the statue was broken during its discovery by the heavy machinery that was removing the old sewer pipe above it. You can see in the picture where it’s still covered in soil that there are bright white gashes on his abdomen, legs and club. The right leg is sheered off at the hip. His penis is no more. Now that the soil has been rinsed off, there is also visible scuffing in multiple places.  That damage is brand new, alas, inflicted by the digger when it made contact. 

The good news is most of the component pieces are large and can be pieced back together. The largest are the main body of the statue, the right leg and the tree stump it leans against. They also recovered Hercules’ club, his quiver, his left shin, part of an arm, the feet and base of the stump on a square base and a number of smaller fragments. I hope his genitalia are in there somewhere.

This video from the Ministry of Culture has very satisfying close-up views of the cleaning in progress. Way too short.

Long stretch of underground aqueduct found in Naples

A previously unknown subterranean tract nearly half a mile long of an Augustan-era aqueduct has been rediscovered by spelunkers in Naples, southern Italy. Spelo-archaeologists from the non-profit Cocceius Association were able to investigate 647 meters (2123 feet) of a branch that tunnels through the Posillipo Hill.

The Aqua Augusta was unique in the Roman world because it supplied not just one main urban nucleus, but at least eight of them in the Bay of Naples area, including Naples, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Cumae. It was built between 33 and 12 B.C by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, best friend and son-in-law of Augustus, when he held the high rank of curator aquarum, the magistrate in charge of the supply, management and maintenance of Rome’s aqueducts.

The source of the water was the town of Serino in the Campanian Apennines which was famed for the purity of its springs. The aqueduct was more than 90 miles long and consisted of 10 branches, seven leading to urban centers and three private offshoots carrying water to the villas of the wealthy. It would remain the longest Roman aqueduct for more than 400 years until construction of the 265 mile-long Aqueduct of Constantinople.

Most of the route was outdoors through channels and brick arches, but the mountainous terrain often required the creation of underground tunnels through a variety of rock types. Tunnels were dug directly into soft rock like tufa or limestone, but sandy soil required the construction of walls and barrel vaulting. The remains of a stretch of brick arches can be found in the Ponti Rossi area of Naples. The endpoint also still stands. The Piscina mirabilis, a massive barrel vaulted cistern built in the port city of Misenum to provision the naval fleet housed there with fresh water, is the largest ancient Roman cistern in the world.

Despite its significance as one of Rome’s greatest architectural achievements, the Aqua Augusta has been little explored and barely documented. The existence of an aqueduct length under Posillipo was noted in 1938 by doctor and archaeology enthusiast Italo Sgobbo, but he did not document it. There was no map or description of the location of the entrance or of the tunnels.

In 2021, Neapolitan native Giuseppe Scodes informed the Cocceius Association that he and his friends had played in those ancient channels as children 40 years ago. Last year the organization was able to secure the permits to access the potential site and Scodes led them to where he remembered the entrances once had been. They were completely covered, however, obscured and inaccessible thanks to forest growth in the decades since young Peppe had played in the coolest fort a kid could ask for.

After days of clearing the underbrush, they were able to reach the tufa wall and climb 13 feet up its vertical surface to get a look inside a hole. That was definitely an ancient access point to the aqueduct, but it was impracticable as an access point for a modern exploration team. They kept looking for an easier ingress, and luckily they found one 250 feet away. After that all they had to do was spelunk, and that’s the easy part. (To them.)

They found the aqueduct tunnels in excellent condition. The section they explored channeled water from the Crypta Neapolitana (originally a military communications tunnel) to Posillipo and the neighboring island of Nisida. It consists of one main specus (roofed channel) 28 inches wide at the roomiest part. A layer of hydraulic plaster 25 inches high was found at the base of the walls, and it is in turn coated in a thick layer of limestone deposited by centuries of flowing hard water. It is a winding, turning path, the result of errors and/or necessary derailments encountered by Agrippa’s builders.

There are some blockages and tight spots, but the full length is explorable. This is the first long uninterrupted stretch of a Roman aqueduct in outstanding condition that will be able to be studied in minute detail.

Rabun Taylor(opens in new tab), a professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved in the report, told Live Science in an email that the newly discovered aqueduct section is interesting because it is “actually a byway that served elite Roman villas, not a city. Multiple demands on this single water source stretched it very thin, requiring careful maintenance and strict rationing.”

Taylor, an expert on Roman aqueducts, also said the new find “may be able to tell us a lot about the local climate over hundreds of years when the water was flowing.” This insight is possible thanks to a thick deposit of lime, a calcium-rich mineral that “accumulates annually like tree rings and can be analyzed isotopically as a proxy for temperature and rainfall,” he explained.

Ferrari, Lamagna and other members of the Cocceius Association plan to analyze the construction of the aqueduct as well, to determine the methods used and the presence of water control structures. “We believe that there are ample prospects for defining a research and exploration plan for this important discovery, which adds a significant element to the knowledge of the ancient population” living in the Bay of Naples, they wrote in the report.

Man in Hercules suit found on Appia Antica

A life-sized marble statue of a Hercules figure has been discovered on the Appia Antica, the ancient road leading south out of Rome. He wears the skin of the Nemean lion, its open mouth on his head like a hat, its front paws tied at the clavicle like a scarf, its hind legs draped over his left arm. His facial features, however, do not match the iconography of Hercules. This is the portrait of a man wearing a Hercules suit.

The statue was not found in an archaeological excavation, but during construction of a new sewer line. The failure of a 19th century pipeline was causing sinkholes to appear in the Archaeological Park of Appia Antica, requiring drastic action over a wide area to repair. Archaeologists have been working with the utilities crews throughout the complex project. Weeks of earth moving had returned no archaeological materials when suddenly Hercules emerged 20 meters (65 feet) below street level.

The statue was unearthed on the second mile of the Appia Antica next to the Tomb of Priscilla (second half of the 1st century A.D.). It was found under the collapsed 19th century pipe that was being demolished by the earthmover. This was not its original location, but a secondary deposit. It was likely discovered during construction of the old sewer line and then just tossed into the soil layer underneath it. (There was zero archaeological oversight back then and people could well have chosen to simply bury the statue instead of going through the trouble of salvaging it.)

Without stratigraphic information, determining the age of the statue is difficult. Comparison to other artifacts is pretty much all archaeologists have to go on, and they’ve begun to research comparable works. They already have a hypothesis for the identity for the man behind the lionskin: the 3rd century emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, aka Trajan Decius.

During these very first analyses we found a decent resemblance between the portrait of our character in the costume of Hercules and Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, better known as Trajan Decius, who reigned from 249 to 251, when he was killed, along with his son Herennius Etruscus, in the Battle of Abrittus between Goths and Romans.

The face of “our Hercules”, although corroded, seems to share with the official portraits of Decius the “wrinkles of anxiety”, which recall Republican Roman portraiture and were aimed at representing the concern for the fate of the State, a virtue evaluated very positively in the high ranks of the empire. Other characteristic features are the treatment of the beard razor and the morphology of the eyes, nose and lips.

Decius was a senator and statesman before his soldiers acclaimed him imperator on the field, and during his brief reign, he made a priority of reviving traditional Roman virtues, religion and governance. He made himself consul every year, attempted to reinstitute the senatorial position of Censor (the magistrate who maintained the citizenship rolls) and promulgated the first official law persecuting Christians by demanding all Roman citizens sacrifice to Rome’s traditional gods for the safety and health of the emperor and empire.

During his brief reign, he made his mark on Rome with public works, building a luxurious new bath complex on the Aventine frequented by the wealthy residents of the neighborhood. Little of it remains today, but two statues were recovered from the site and are now in the collection of the Capitoline Museums. One of them is an unusual monumental basalt statue of Hercules as a boy. He wears the skin of the Nemean Lion draped over his head, paws tied around his chest. He holds his iconic club in his right hand (only the handle of it remains) and the apples of the Hesperides and in his left. Presenting himself clothed in Hercules’ attributes would certainly be in keeping with Decius’ emphasis on promoting traditional Roman virtues.

Iron Age sacrificial deposits found in Poland

Votive deposits of bronze objects from the Iron Age have been discovered near the city of Chełmno in northern Poland. Dozens of bronze ornaments and numerous human bones were unearthed, the remains of sacrificial rituals that took place at the site about 2,500 years ago when the Lusatian culture inhabited the area. The important Lusatian fortified settlement of Biskupin lies just 60 miles southwest of the find site.

Today the area is farmland, but in the 6th century B.C. it was a lake. Leaving metal objects in bodies of water as offerings was a well-known practice in prehistoric Europe and more than 30% of the prehistoric artifacts found in Poland came from water sites. However this is the first lake site in Poland that contains both metal artifacts and human remains.

The lake eventually dried up into a peat bog whose anaerobic environment preserved the artifacts, bones and rare traces of organic materials like rope and textiles. The bog was drained to convert it into the farmland and agricultural work over the years has disrupted the archaeological material and when members of a metal detecting group who work with heritage authorities to survey potential sites of interests scanned the field on January 8th, they found a number of artifacts on the surface of the ground, churned up in recent plowing.

They alerted archaeologists from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń who excavated the site finding three distinct deposit groupings. Objects recovered include neck torcs, bangle bracelets, beads, spirals, large brooches with round spiral heads that look like novelty swirl lollipops, horse harness fittings and parts of a unique necklace decorated with fish tail pendants. Most of the objects are Lusatian in style, but there are a few pieces typical of the Scythian peoples in what is now Ukraine.

So far more than 100 fragments of human bone have been recovered. Lusatians cremated their dead and buried them in large urn cemeteries and these bones are unburned. That suggests they were deliberately sacrificed.

Researchers claim that human sacrifices may have been made due to population shifts and, by extension, invasions.

Dr. Gackowski explained that this happened due to the influx of nomadic peoples from the Pontic Steppe into the region, including the Scythians.

“These people, probably in order to ward off the violent changes associated with the arrival of new neighbours with a completely different organization, appearance and vision of the world, began to practice a variety of rituals,” he said.

The latest finds will now be sent to the University of Science and Technology in Kraków for examination and conservation.

Longest sword in Japan found in 4th c. burial mound

The longest sword in Japan and a large bronze mirror that is also unprecedented in the Japanese archaeological record have been unearthed at the Tomio Maruyama burial mound in Nara. The burial mound (known as a kofun) and artifacts date to the second half of the 4th century.

The sword is 2.37 meters (7’9″) long and 6 cm (2.34 inches) wide, more than twice as long as the previous record-holder that was found in a late 5th century burial mound in Hiroshima. It is the longest iron sword ever found in East Asia. The sword is a serpentine shape. Only 85 serpentine swords have been unearthed in Japan, and this is the oldest of them. It was hammered and bent in six places to create the characteristic wavy effect. Traces of organic remains from the sheath and grip wrapping were found on the pommel, hilt and scabbard. Its extraordinary dimensions and shape are a testament to the advanced ironworking techniques of the Kofun Period (ca. 250-538 A.D.).

The bronze mirror is shaped like a shield, a form never before seen in a kofun, and it too is oversized by a lot. It is 64 cm (two feet) long and 31 cm (one foot) wide, making it the largest mirror of the period ever discovered. Its decoration is also unique. The back of the mirror is engraved with stylized dragons and geometric designs. A round projection in the center that looks like a shield boss is called a “chu” and it’s actually a handle. The reflective surface of the mirror is still smooth and polished.

The Tomio Maruyama Kofun is the largest circular burial mound in Japan. It is 109 meters (358 feet) in diameter. The site was looted in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and lost its top as well as some of the artifacts it contained. Municipal archaeologists have been studying the mound since 2018, first mapping it with aerial laser scans, then following up with excavation surveys which clarified the structure and dimensions of the mound.

Last fall was the fifth excavation season which focused on the Tsukuridashi area, a squared outcropping on the northeast side of the mound. Archaeologists found a grave pit that had been dug into a gravel layer before the completion of the burial mound. The grave pit contained a split coffin made of koyamaki (umbrella pine) wood five meters (16.4′) long. It was covered with clay.

The mirror was placed diagonally against the clay cover with the reflective surface facing outward. The sword was buried flat parallel to the clay cover.

Mirror and shields are considered to be tools to protect the dead from evil spirits. The sword is thought to have been enlarged to increase its power, and the possibility of its use as a battle tool is low, [city archaeologists] said.

The Tomio Maruyama burial mound, the largest in Japan at 109 m in diameter and dating back to the late 4th century, is thought to have belonged to a powerful individual supporting the Yamato rulers of the time.

The burial chamber where the discoveries were made is thought to have belonged to someone close to that person, according to Naohiro Toyoshima, an archaeology professor at Nara University. He also said that the ritualistic sword and the shield-shaped mirror may indicate that the individual was involved in military and ritualistic matters.