Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Ancient Samaritan 10 Commandments for sale

Saturday, October 22nd, 2016

A marble tablet inscribed with the Ten Commandments in Samaritan will be sold at auction next month at at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. The Yavneh 10 Commandments Stone is roughly two-by-two feet, weighs 115 pounds and was carved probably between 4th and 8th centuries A.D. in the Samaritan variant of Paleo-Hebrew script. It is one of only five inscriptions of the Samaritan Decalogue from before the Muslim invasion known to survive.

A close derivative of ancient Phoenician, Paleo-Hebrew script was in use from at least as early as the 10th century B.C. — the Zayit Stone, the oldest inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, dates to then — until the 5th century B.C. when Aramaic began to take its place. The Samaritans, however, continued to use their version of Paleo-Hebrew and still do so today.

Translated from the Samaritan dialect of Hebrew, the line-by-line inscription runs as follows:

1. Dedicated in the name of Korach
2. I will call you to remember for goodness forever
3. God spoke
4. all these words
5. saying I am the Lord
6. your God you shall not have
7. for yourself other Gods
8. besides me; you shall not make
9. for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness;
10. for I the Lord
11. your God am an impassioned God;
12. Remember the Sabbath day
13. keep it holy; honor
14. your father and your mother;
15. you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery;
16. you shall not steal; you shall not bear [false witness] against your neighbor
17. you shall not covet; you shall erect
18. these stones that
19. I am commanding you today
20. on Mount Gerizim rise up to God

You might notice they’re not quite the standard set of 10. The one about not taking the name of God in vain is missing, and there’s a new one at the end about building the temple on Mount Gerizim to house the tablets.

The tablet’s origins are nebulous, but according to research done in the 1940s, it was discovered in 1913 by construction workers building a railroad near Yavneh on the southern coast of what was then Palestine. They either gave it or sold it to a wealthy local man who installed it on the floor of a doorway into his courtyard. Over time, the middle of the inscription was worn down be people walking on it, but it can still be read under oblique lighting.

The son of the owner sold it in 1943 to Mr. Y. Kaplan who knew right away it was a rare Samaritan Decalogue tablet. Kaplan engaged scholar and expert in Samaritan history (and the future second President of Israel) Yitzhak Ben-Zvi to study the stone. It was he who determined its likely age range based on the writing style of the Samaritan. Later scholarship has expanded the possible date range to the early Islamic occupation period (ca. 640-830 A.D.), but the Byzantine date range is still prevalent.

The stone was sold to an antiquities dealer in the 1990s and in 2005 was bought by Rabbi Saul Deutsch of the Living Torah Museum in Brooklyn, New York. As an object of Israeli cultural patrimony, the tablet’s export required a special permit from the Israel Antiquities Authority who allowed it on the condition that it was to be put on public display.

The museum has a collection of ancient artifacts that illustrate people, places and things mentioned in the Torah, like 3,500-year-old Hittite toy chariots as examples of what the Egyptian chariots that chased the fleeing Jews during the Exodus may have looked like. Judging from what’s available online at least, some of the connections are tenuous at best. Fragments of Coptic-era Egyptian garments, for instance, are hardly indicative of what the Jews who left Egypt might have worn. While the tablet has been on display since the sale, as per the terms of the agreement with the IAA, it is not one of the artifacts included in the website’s slideshows.

The museum, which contains a large collection of artifacts of Jewish life and history dating back to antiquity, is shifting toward a more hands-on focus to attract younger visitors and decided it was time to sell the artifact.

“The sale will provide us with the money to do what we need to do. It’s all for the best,” Deutsch said in a statement.

The opening bid will be $250,000, a fortune for a small Brooklyn museum. One caveat, though, the condition requiring public display of the artifact still holds, so the buyer can’t just stash it in his cave of wonders. The auction is on November 16th, but you can bid online starting Friday, October 28th.

Villa of one of the last pagan Roman senators found

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of a grand Roman villa outside of Florence. The luxury home was unearthed on private property in what is now the village of Capraia by archaeologists and students from the University of Pisa. So far the team has found a hexagonal structure with six rooms which they believe to include a dining room suite with multiple triclinia. It is of monumental scale, 100 feet in diameter with ceilings estimated to be 50 feet high. Multiple polychrome mosaic floors survive, including a scene of a wild boar hunt in the main reception area. They have also found the remains of the hypocaust system that heated the villa’s baths, namely the hollow space under the floor with pillars of tile (pilae stacks) that supported the floor of the hot room.

The villa dates to the 4th century A.D. and is an exceptional example of a late antiquity country estate. The size and complexity of the villa is so impressive that dig leader Professor Federico Cantini believes the only comparable aristocratic villas from that period are found in Constantinople, then still just a few decades into its tenure as the new capital of the Roman Empire. The mansion was enlarged in the 5th century only to be plundered and abandoned in the 6th. There is also some evidence of occupation in the late Middle Ages, probably by people who were stripping what was left of it for building materials.

An inscription on a stone slab found at the villa identifies the owner as Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, a well-known and highly esteemed 4th century senator who had a distinguished political career and who was at the epicenter of the last significant attempt by the few remaining non-Christian members of the aristocratic ruling class to preserve traditional Roman religions in the face of the onslaught of legislation and Christianization practices that would destroy them. Praetextatus held high political and religious office. He was governor of Tuscany and Umbria, consular of Lusitania, proconsul of Achaia, urban praetor, praetorian prefect to Emperor Valentinian II and consul-elect (he died before he could take office). His many religious titles and priesthoods included augur, quindecimvir (guardian of the Sibylline Books), pontifex Vestae, pontifex Solis, sacratus Libero et Eleusinis and curialis Herculis.

He and his close friend and senatorial colleague Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who was a very wealthy scion of the patrician Aurelian family and who was known to have at least a dozen country villas of his own, worked together to restore the traditional Roman religions. When he was urban praetor, Praetextatus petitioned the emperor for the restoration of sacred objects looted from temples. When he got the go-ahead, he assigned the job of collecting whatever was left to Symmachus. In 384 A.D., Symmachus wrote an open letter to Valentinian II asking for the return of the Altar of Victory to the Curia, a letter which is still famous today, mainly in conjunction with the equally famous rebuttal written by Ambrose of Milan.

Later that year, Praetextatus died. The city plunged into public mourning and there was an outpouring of grief from Romans of all religions. His wife of 40 years, Aconia Fabia Paulina, had her eulogy for him, apparently a version of her funeral oration, inscribed on his funerary monument. She shared his religious convictions and held many religious honors herself, and in the oration she said he was now in the heavens where, gods willing, she would soon join him. And she did.

Saint Jerome used Praetextatus, whose death had so roiled the city, as an example of how the most exalted, respected pagan will spend eternity in sulfurous agony while the most miserable, derided, self-abnegating Christian will be raised to glory in the hereafter. From his Letter XXIII to Marcella written in 384 A.D., the year of Praetextatus’ death:

Now, therefore, in return for her short toil, Lea enjoys everlasting felicity; she is welcomed into the choirs of the angels; she is comforted in Abraham’s bosom. And, as once the beggar Lazarus saw the rich man, for all his purple, lying in torment, so does Lea see the consul, not now in his triumphal robe but clothed in mourning, and asking for a drop of water from her little finger. How great a change have we here! A few days ago the highest dignitaries of the city walked before him as he ascended the ramparts of the capitol like a general celebrating a triumph; the Roman people leapt up to welcome and applaud him, and at the news of his death the whole city was moved. Now he is desolate and naked, a prisoner in the foulest darkness, and not, as his unhappy wife falsely asserts, set in the royal abode of the Milky Way. On the other hand Lea, who was always shut up in her one closet, who seemed poor and of little worth, and whose life was accounted madness, now follows Christ and sings, “Like as we have heard, so have we seen in the city of our God.”

We know that Praetextatus and Paulina had two houses in Rome, one on the Esquiline whose vast gardens reached what is now Termini railway station and one on the Aventine. Now we know they had a huge country palace in Tuscany. The excavation will be open to the public this weekend, on Saturday afternoon from 3:30 to 6:30 PM, and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 6:30 PM. Professor Cantini and the University of Pisa team will be present to explain the site to visitors.

Huge mosaic floor in Jericho unveiled for one day

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

For one time only, the glorious 8th century mosaic floor of Khirbat al-Mafjar, colloquially known as Hisham’s Palace, was on view in all its colorful majesty on Thursday, October 20th. The floor features 38 different scenes in 21 colors, and at 825 square meters (8,900 square feet), it is one of the largest mosaic floors in the world.

Discovered in 1873 three miles north of the West Bank city of Jericho, the first excavations of the site took place between 1934 and 1948 under the direction of Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki. The palace got its name from a marble ostracon that was discovered during the Baramki excavations that had “Hisham” scratched on it. The name on the marble fragment suggested that the lavish mansion may have been built during the reign of the 10th Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (r. 724-743). The name stuck even though the palace may not have been built for the caliph himself. Robert Hamilton, the British colonial administrator and a colleague of Baramki’s, proposed the compound was constructed for the Hisham’s nephew and successor Walid ibn Yazid (r. 743-744) whose notorious love of the high life irritated the hell out his more temperate uncle.

Whoever it was built for, it had to have been someone in the royal family. The architecture, decorations and artifacts mark it as having been built under the Umayyad dynasty in first half of the 8th century. It’s in a category of structures known as the Umayyad desert castles, fortified palaces built near water sources in the arid regions of Jordan, Syria, Israel and the West Bank between 661 (when Damascus was made the Umayyad capital) and 750 A.D. (when the capital was moved to Baghdad).

Like the other desert castles, Hisham’s Palace includes an agricultural enclosure and a bath complex supplied with water from a nearby oasis. The spectacular mosaics covered the floor of the main bath hall, and one of the most famous stand-out pieces, a Tree of Life mosaic, decorated the floor of the bath’s bahw, or special reception room. It depicts a fruit tree with two gazelles peacefully hanging out on the left, while a gazelle on the right side is attacked by a lion. The contrasting scenes of peace vs. combat are believed to represent the power of the caliph to either bring prosperity to his people or to ruthlessly repress them.

Elaborately carved stucco panels, mainly florals and geometrics with some animal and human figures, including semi-nude men and women, were also found in the bath complex. The stuccos are now at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. The decorative elements in the desert castles are among the earliest Islamic art, and the mosaics, sculptures, frescoes and carved stucco features at Hisham’s Palace are of particularly high quality. The dizzying array of colors and patterns in the mosaics prefigure later Islamic design, while the figural art is unique to the Umayyad period.

The palace is the biggest tourist draw in the West Bank which has a major downside from a conservation standpoint. In addition to the tens of thousands of visitors stomping the site every year, Jericho’s urban sprawl, conflict and scant funds for preservation and personnel have placed Hisham’s Palace is in dire straights. In 2010, the non-profit Global Heritage Fund put it on a list of 12 sites on the verge of irreparable damage. The only mosaic on display in the Tree of Life in the reception room. The rest have been covered by soil and canvas almost since they were first unearthed.

In September 2015, the Japan International Cooperation Agency signed a grant agreement with the Palestinian Authority to give up to 1.235 billion yen ($11,860,000) to construct a protective roof and exhibition facilities for the bath mosaics. The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities spent a year carefully removing the sand, soil and assorted debris covering the floor. Now that the construction phase is about to begin, the complete mosaic floor of the bath complex of Hisham’s Palace was uncovered for a day. The floors go back undercover until the project is complete. If all goes well, the newly protected and restored mosaics will be open to visitors by 2018.

First possible victim of killer boomerang found

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

A man found buried in Toorale National Park in New South Wales, southeastern Australia, may be the first known boomerang victim. The skeletal remains were discovered on the bank of the Darling River during a 2014 archaeological survey. Erosion had exposed the cranium but the subsequent excavation found an almost complete skeleton in an excellent state of preservation. He was buried on his right side in a tightly flexed position facing upstream to the northwest, a careful, deliberate positioning that indicates he was respectfully buried by his people. Members of the Kurnu Baakantji Aboriginal group who inhabit the area dubbed him Kaakutja, meaning “Older Brother.”

Osteological analysis found that the deceased was an adult male between 25 and 25 years old at time of death. He was about 5’5″-5’7″ tall. There is evidence of sharp-force trauma in several places on his skeleton: two ante-mortem wounds on the cranium and peri-mortem trauma on the right side of the frontal bone, the cheekbone, maxilla, mandible, upper right humerus and five left ribs. He was hacked up, basically. Nothing like this pattern of trauma has been found on archaeological skeletal remains in Australia. Usually the injuries found are depression and parrying fractures. Only one other skeleton has been found with wounds inflicted by a sharp object and they were spear wounds. These are cutting

Given the sharp-force trauma found on Kaakutja’s skeleton, archaeologists expected to find the remains dated to after the arrival of the English in the 18th century, but radiocarbon dating of the bone and one of the teeth, confirmed with optical dating of sediment inside the cranium, found that Kaakutja lived between 1220 and 1280, 500 years before James Cook set foot on the continent, and 600 years before English colonists settled New South Wales.

Since the wounds could not have been caused by a metal blade, archaeologists turned to traditional Aboriginal weapons to explain Kaakutja’s injuries. One possibility is the lil-lil, a club-like weapon with a flattened, finely edged head. Another is the wonna, or fighting boomerang. This weapon is not the hunting boomerang, a curved throwing stick hurled at high speeds to take down prey, nor the returning boomerang which is what most people think of when they hear the word but is only a few hundred years old. The fighting boomerang was described by ethnographer R.H. Mathews in 1907 as “considerably bigger and heavier” than the returning boomerang with “a more open curve. It reminds one of the blade of a sabre and its inner edge is sharp and dangerous.”

The wound going down Kaakutja’s face is probably too large to have been inflicted by a lil-lil. Boomerangs, on the other hand, could be as long as 18 inches and could certainly have caused his head wound. Archaeologists believe that was the first blow struck in the attack. Kaakutja’s was slashed with the fighting boomerang, likely taking out his eye. Then he was struck in the ribs, breaking five of them and probably bringing him to his knees. Then he was slashed across the top of the arm, carving off a circle of bone from the top of the humerus.

Kaakutja’s wounds suggest “close-range injuries—possibly hand-to-hand combat,” agrees Jo McDonald of the University of Western Australia, who was not involved with the study. Kaakutja’s forearms show no injuries from warding off blows. So Westaway and his colleagues speculate he was attacked with a boomerang designed to whip around the edge of a shield. Both shields and boomerangs were common items across the continent.

Rock art at Gundabooka National Park, 15 miles east of the burial site, records ancient intertribal wars. The two sides are depicted in two different colors — orange and white ochre — and the fighters carry shields, clubs and very recognizable boomerangs. Perhaps Kaakutja met his end in just such a conflict.

The significance of the find is hard to overstate. Kaakutja’s wounds are unique in the pre-European Australian archaeological record. They suggest that traditional Aboriginal sharpened hardwood weapons of could cut bone much like metal blades can. It will also help archaeologists going forward in identifying the kind of wounds caused by Aboriginal weaponry.

Kaakutja’s remains have been reburied in a traditional Kurnu Baakantji ceremony, but the study of this unique individual and his violent end will continue. Next on the agenda is attempting to duplicate the wounds using replica weapons. The study of Kaakutja and his injuries has been published in this month’s issue of the journal Antiquity

700 7th c. drug bottles found in Turkey

Sunday, October 16th, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered a unique trove of ancient medicine bottles in the ancient Greek town of Bathonea, 10 miles west of Istanbul. Usually made of ceramic or glass, although there are a few high-end examples made of alabaster and silver, the small bottles known as unguentaria were used in antiquity to hold everything from perfume and cosmetics to olive oil and powdered incense. They are often found in Greek burials as grave goods, but only a few in each grave. Larger numbers of unguentaria have been unearthed in ancient household rubbish dumps, discarded over a period of time after being broken.

The ones found at Bathonea, on the other hand, were all made at the same time out of clay in the shape of miniature amphorae, and 700 unguentaria in one site is an unprecedented find. Many of them were also in fragments — archaeologists pieced hundreds of them back together in the laboratory — but they weren’t discarded or funerary/religious offerings. This was an industrial facility for the manufacture of unguentaria and likely for their contents.

Samples of material found inside the vessels were sent for analysis to the Scientific and Technological Research Council (TÜBİTAK) in Gebze district. Tests found the residues contained Methanone and Phenanthrene, plant-derived substances used in herbal medicine as anti-depressants and heart medications, among other uses.

“Some of them are still being repaired, but meanwhile we have also found pestles of various sizes, mortars, and a stove, indicating that there was a pharmaceutical production center here” [associate professor from Kocaeli University Dr. Şengül] Aydıngün said, and added that there are specific plants on the site, which make up the essence of many medicines.

They also found bone tools, spatulas and medical instruments, so this appears to have been a full-service drug and medical supply store.

This roof of this facility collapsed in a fire, keeping its production line in place even if heavily damaged. Practically all of the structures so far excavated at Bathonea have the same fire layer. Samples from it were analyzed by the Wroclaw Archeology and Ethnography Institute in Poland which found that the carbon samples date to between 620 and 640. That date range is meaningful because the nomadic Avars joined forces with the Sassanid Persians and assorted Slavs to besiege Constantinople in 626. After two months of attacks from land and sea, the Avars and Persians retreated before the victorious Byzantines, but they did a lot of damage while they were there. Archaeologists think the fire that felled the Bathonea pharmacy may be evidence of the Avar attack. No other archaeological evidence of this clash has been found before.

The site of Bathonea was first confirmed in 2009, after documentary research and geophysical surveys pointed to its location being in the basin of what is now Lake Küçükçekmece, a lake created when a sandbar cut it off the Sea of Marmara. Bathonea was a bustling port city, and in five years of excavations archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a large port, docks, a lighthouse, long, broad avenues to the sea, a palace complex, planned city squares and streets, two major waterways and a cistern built with bricks bearing the mark of the Emperor Constantine. Other artifacts discovered indicate the site has been occupied long before the construction of the Hellenistic city in the 4th century B.C., objects going back as far as the Neolithic (8,000 B.C.) have been found at Bathonea. The city was abandoned in the 11th century after a massive earthquake and never rebuilt.

Bathonea’s extensive archaeological record is or particular significance because it’s on the outskirts of Istanbul and can therefore fill the gaps in the capital city’s own chronology. For example, Istanbul’s Neolithic era is relatively well documented archaeologically, but there is nothing from the Hittite era (ca. 2,000 B.C.). The discovery of Hittite ceramics in Bathonea, therefore, was confirmation of their active presence in the area. The burn layer in the pharmaceutical facility and its neighboring structures has now added to that chronology by providing the first archaeological evidence of the major upheaval in the 7th century.

Study ancient Egypt online with the University of Pennsylania

Friday, October 14th, 2016

The Penn Museum, the University of Pennsylvania’s archaeology museum, has one of the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the United States. There are more than 42,000 objects, including the largest sphinx in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest in the world. The head curator of the collection is University of Pennsylvania’s Eckley Brinton Coxe, Jr Professor of Egyptology Dr. David Silverman, one of the world’s leading experts on Egyptian history. He was a curator of the blockbuster Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit which brought 53 artifacts from the famous tomb to the United States for the first time in the late 1970s, and was the national curator of the even grander blockbuster, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, thirty years later. He has led multiple archaeological excavations in Egypt and is widely published on Egyptian history, epigraphy, language, art, and religion.

There was a time when being taught by an Ivy League professor preeminent in his field was a privilege reserved for very few, but it’s a brave new world out there now, and the University of Pennsylvania is offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) through Coursera entitled Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization. It will be taught by Dr. Silverman who developed the course using references to the Egyptian artifacts in the Penn Museum. MOOCs on ancient Egypt have been offered before by many institutions of higher learning, but none of them had access to a collection like the Penn Museum’s to illustrate the coursework. Silver spent two years developing this course and its sequels, researching the material, writing scripts for the lectures and choosing hundreds of photographs as visual aids. A crew for the university’s School of Arts and Sciences Online Learning filmed the galleries of the Penn Museum for days, working around the museum’s hours so that students will get the kind of unobstructed view of the objects on display that is virtually impossible in crowded real life.

The class begins on October 31st with a showing of the original The Mummy with Boris Karloff. Okay no. I made that up because of the coincidental Halloween opening date, but it would be a pretty entertaining overture, especially since the faux “archaeology” in that movie is so egregiously wrong on every possible level that it even eclipses Karloff’s outstanding makeup in horror quotient. In reality, the course consists of five filmed lectures about an hour long. The lectures will be supplemented with quizzes and project assignments, and students will be able to engage in online discussions of the material.

A prolific author, speaker, and exhibition curator, Dr. Silverman developed the course with an eye to answering the many questions he has encountered over the years. “I wanted to offer a course that tapped into the deep fascination that so many people—myself included—bring with them as they explore the art and culture of the ancient Egyptians,” he noted. “My hope is that through this course many questions will be answered—and new questions will arise. Ancient Egypt’s culture and achievements are worthy of a lifetime of study and exploration.”

As the course description notes, each hour-long videotaped lecture focuses on a different subject: History and Chronology; The Pharaoh and Kingship; Gods and Goddesses; The Pyramids and the Sphinx; Mummies and Mummification. Part two of the course explores Principles of Egyptian Art; The Basics of the Language of Ancient Egypt – Hieroglyphs; Magic; Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and the Religion of the Aten; and The Burial of Tutankhamun and the Search for his Tomb.

If you are fortunate enough to be in Philadelphia or environs on Saturday, December 10th, there will be an end of course Open House with Dr. Silverman at the Penn Museum from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. Students will enjoy talks by museum Egyptologists, tours of the gallery, a mummification workshop, book signings and an Egyptian-inspired lunch at the museum café.

Already 20,000 people have signed up for the course. The MOOC is free of charge — there’s a fee of $49 if you want to get a certificate — and once it’s complete, all students will receive email notification of the second course in the series: Wonders of the Ancient World, which is schedule to launch in early 2017.

Intact 1,600-year-old roasting pit unearthed in Alberta

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

Archaeologists have unearthed a 1,600-year-old untouched roasting pit at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwest Alberta, Canada. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was used by native peoples of the North American Plains to hunt, butcher and process bison for 6,000 years. It is one of the oldest and best preserved buffalo jumps, which archaeological features still surviving on the surface and under ground.

The site has four areas that were used for different purposes: the gathering basin, where the bison would graze on the lush grasses and drink fresh water well into the fall, the drive lanes, stone cairns built in lanes that hunters would chase buffalo down, the cliff kill site, the edge of the cliff which the stampeding bison would be forced off of, and the processing area where the bison were butchered, their meat roasted, the bones boiled for grease rendering, strips of meat dried in the sun and pemmican, a highly nutritious staple made of dried meat grease, marrow and berries pounded together, made to keep people alive during the long winter.

Artifacts and remains are present throughout the site. An astonishing 36 feet of deposits have accumulated below the cliff kill site alone over the course of 5,700 years, and the processing area is repeat with kitchen tools like scrapers, knives, drills, pottery and boiling stones cracked by fire.

It was in the processing area where archaeologist Robert Dawe, now Royal Alberta Museum Inventory Curator, discovered the roasting pit in 1990. He had been excavating the area for four years when he unearthed a canine paw (probably wolf rather than dog) and the articulated leg bones of a bison calf. It was the articulation of the bones that indicated this was a roasting pit, and even more intriguingly, a roasting pit whose contents had never been eaten. The stratigraphy pointed to this as a Blackfoot site about 1,600 years old. As soon as he realized that this was an incredibly rare find, Dawe covered it back up to preserve for future excavation.

The future took 26 years to happen. Dawe returned this year and dug out the entire pit encased in a soil block and wrapped tight in layers of plaster, burlap and foil.

“This thing hasn’t seen the light of day since 1,600 years ago,” Dawe said. “Nobody has seen the contents of this meal that was prepared for a delicious feast. For some reason the people never came back and opened it up.” [...]

“This is a classic example of an earth oven,” Dawe said. “This is a common thing that is found all over the world.”

Dawe compared the earth oven or roasting pit used by the Plains people thousands of years ago to the modern luau in Hawaii.

“The idea is you dig a pit, line it with rock, and build a hot fire and let it burn down to coals,” Dawe explained. “Typically they would put down a layer of vegetation like willows here, put the food on top of the willows, another layer of willows, an insulating layer of earth, and then they would build a hot fire on top.”

“They would let it cook overnight and the heat from the upper fire would bring the heat from the coals through the animal, and in the morning it would be fall-off-the-bone tender — just delicious.”

What caused the Blackfoot to abandon this delicious slow-cooked meal is a mystery. It could have been anything from a fire to a sudden storm.

Once secured and removed, the block was then craned onto a truck and transported to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, a newly built facility that has all the bells and whistles necessary to excavate, preserve and ultimately display this treasure. Dawe and his team will painstakingly excavate it “with toothpicks and a light vacuum cleaner,” a process that will take months. Everything they find will be conserved, the bones treated to keep them from deteriorating.

Piikani Nation elder Conrad Little Leaf conducted a traditional prayer in the Blackfoot language and made a ceremonial offering of tobacco blessing the excavation team. It was a bittersweet farewell, as Head-Smashed-In’s Marketing and Special Events Coordinator Quinton CrowShoe noted, because as something their ancestors left behind, the roasting pit and its contents are sacred to them so they would much rather the pit stay in place.

But while the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump site has an excellent interpretative center, it does not have the facilities to preserve delicate archaeological materials in ideal environmental conditions, so the roasting pit is slated to go on display at the Royal Alberta Museum’s new First Peoples gallery that will open at the end of 2017. There is still hope it might return to Head-Smashed-In should an appropriate facility be built.

Watch Conrad Little Leaf’s prayer, the removal of the pit and Robert Dawe’s explanation of the find in this video:

Ancient cannabis burial shroud found in China

Friday, October 7th, 2016

An ancient grave unearthed in Jiayi cemetery in China’s Turpan Basin contains the remains of man covered in cannabis plants. Radiocarbon dating found that the man was buried between 2,400 to 2,800 years ago. The remains of a man about 35 years of age at the time of his death were laid to rest on a wooden bed with his head on a reed pillow. Thirteen female cannabis plants, all of them close to three feet long, were laid diagonally on the man’s body. The roots placed below his pelvis, the tops reaching his chin and going up the left side of his face.

About 240 graves have been excavated in Jiayi cemetery. Archaeologists believe it was a burial ground of the Subeixi culture which lived in the oasis between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago. Cannabis has been found in other graves in the Turpan Basin before, most notably a solid two pounds of seeds and powdered leaves found in a shaman’s burial in 2008, have been found in graves from this period before, but this is the first time entire plants have survived and the first time they’ve been found in a shroud configuration.

The plants are in excellent condition, good enough to answer key questions about how cannabis was grown and used for funerary purposes in the region.

Since previous cannabis finds in Turpan burials consisted only of plant parts, it has been difficult for researchers to determine whether the plant was grown locally or obtained through trade with neighboring regions.

The plants in the Jiayi burial, however, were found lying flat on the man’s body, leading archaeologists to conclude that the cannabis had been fresh—and therefore local—when it was harvested for the burial.

In addition, while nearly all of the flowering heads of the 13 female plants had been cut off before they were placed on the body, a few that remained were nearly ripe and contained some immature fruit, suggesting that the plants were collected—and that the burial occurred—in late summer.

The surviving flowering heads also provide clues to the role of cannabis in the Turpan cultures. The fibrous plants might have been valued for their usability in textile and rope-making, for example, rather than inhaled or eaten to alter consciousness. No hemp textiles or artifacts have been found, however, and the buds found in the Jiayi grave are rich in “hairs” THC-heavy hairs, suggesting that they were grown at least in part for their psychoactive properties.

The study of the cannabis in the Jiayi grave has been published in the journal Economic Botany and can be read here for a fee (unless you have an institutional login).

Greek police bust massive looting operating

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

Greek police have busted a large-scale criminal organization that trafficked in looted antiquities. More than 2,000 artifacts, most of them coins dating from as early as the 6th century B.C., were confiscated in the bust. There are 2024 coins, 126 assorted artifacts, the oldest of which is a marble Cycladic figurine from the 3rd millennium B.C. Other artifacts include gold jewelry, three gold plates weighing a total of 110 grams, bronze arrow tips, a bronze animal figurine, a glass vase, five Byzantine icons, a Byzantine cross, and two medieval statues of a male warrior and a woman which were found hidden in a well in Nemea.

Led by the police directorate in Patras, southwestern Greece, authorities investigated the operation for 14 months. More than 50 people are believed to have been part of the ring which ranged all over the country and covered every part of the traffic from illegal excavations to illegal export. The gang found artifacts by digging at or nearby known archaeological sites and by using satellite imagery to identify new potential sites. The worker bees would dig at night to avoid detection, and the leaders of the ring would then arranged for the sale of the artifacts by directly negotiating with auction houses and private buyers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the UK.

Thanks to extensive documentation found in the bust, police have the full receipts on who bought what when. The dirty auction houses, which Greek authorities are not naming because of laws protecting suspects from exposure before trial, not only knowingly ginned up bullshit ownership histories (heyo Swiss private collection!), they also conspired with the looters to artificially jack up the bids during live auctions to squeeze more money out of buyers and even went so far as to give these bastards tens of thousands of euros so they’d have the cash to buy black market artifacts, mainly coins, that they hadn’t themselves excavated.

Underscoring the wide range of the criminal conspiracy, police also found a cache of weapons — modern shotguns, rifles, pistols, air guns, bullets, a silencer, plus an antique pistol and antique swords — 21 metal detectors, 73 cellphones, 17 computers, currency measuring scales, piles of cash in euros, dollars and Kuwaiti dinars and counterfeit plates. But wait, there’s more! Seven cars and some cannabis, to be precise.

Two of the leaders of the gang, a 54-year-old father and 27-year-old son, were arrested Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border. Police found 946 ancient coins and 32 ancient artifacts hidden in the bumper of their car. Another 24 members of the gang were arrested as well. It seems this outfit has been operating for at least 10 years.

Restituted Egyptian mummy portraits for sale

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

Two rare Egyptian mummy portraits with a dramatic history will be sold at Christie’s Antiquities auction in New York on October 25th. One is an encaustic on wood portrait of a woman, identifiable from her hairstyle (a single braid wrapped around her head) and earrings as dating to the 2nd century A.D.; the other, also encaustic on wood, is a portrait of a bearded man from the 2nd century A.D. The pre-sale estimate for the woman is $150,000-250,000, for the man $100,000-150,000.

They are being offered for sale by the Mosse Art Restitution Project which represents the heirs of Rudolf Mosse (1843-1920), a German Jewish publisher and philanthropist who amassed an extensive collection of art and antiquities in his lifetime. The portraits were part of that collection, probably acquired thanks to his sponsorship of archaeological excavations by German Egyptologist Heinrich Karl Brugsch. Brugsch died in 1894, so if the portraits did come through him, they left Egypt legally in the 19th century which is not something you see every day with mummy portraits.

Mosse published the liberal newspaper the Berliner Tageblatt. After his death, his daughter Felicia’s husband Hans Lachmann-Mosse took over as publisher. When the Nazis came on the scene, the newspaper under editor-in-chief Theodor Wolff was heavily critical of them. Then came February 1933, the Reichstag fire and the quick series of legislative changes that instituted single party rule and suspended civil liberties. In the beginning of March, 1933, Hans Lachmann-Mosse succumbed to pressure to take Wolff off the masthead and drastically shift the direction of the paper to the political right. Wolff, who was Jewish (he was Rudolf Mosse’s cousin, in fact), liberal and the founder of one of the parties that would soon be outlawed, had already fled by then, taking off for Austria the day after the fire.

Hans’ efforts to go with the flow were wasted, of course. He and Felicia were forced to flee, leaving the great Mosse collection behind to be preyed upon by Nazi art gluttons. The collection was confiscated by the state and sold at auction. The Egyptian portraits were acquired by none other than Erich Maria Remarque, author of the classic World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.

The Nazis hated Erich Maria Remarque. Even before the Nazi takeover of Germany, Joseph Goebbels excoriated Remarque’s novel and dispatched Hitler Youth to cause gross disruptions — releasing large numbers of mice, throwing stink bombs — in theaters showing the extremely popular and critically acclaimed Hollywood movie of the book. Remarque was derided as a crypto-Jew (he was Catholic from a long line of Catholics), a Marxist (he wasn’t even a leftist, just a pacifist) and a coward who hadn’t even seen combat in World War I (he was wounded on the Western Front, taking shrapnel in his leg, back and neck). Remarque’s books were officially banned on May 10th, 1933, just over two months after the passage of the Reichstag Fire Decree that all but abolished civil liberties. He was burned in effigy in front of Berlin’s opera house, and his books were thrown on the great bonfire alongside those of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann.

Remarque moved to his villa in Switzerland. His collection of art and Egyptian antiquities, now including the two Mosse mummy portraits, went with him. After his death in 1970, his collection passed to his wife Paulette Goddard-Remarque, famous in her own right as a silent movie actress and Charlie Chaplin’s ex-wife who starred in with him in Modern Times and, in a lovely middle finger to Hitler, in The Great Dictator. She sold the portraits to the University of Zurich. Researchers at the university identified them last year as having been part of the Mosse collection and they were restituted to the foundation.

This kind of deep background is unusual for mummy portraits, not just because there are celebrities involved, but because when they crop up in the market, they often have very little in the way of documented history. For instance, this exquisitely beautiful portrait of a woman from ca. 55-70 A.D. that sold at Christie’s in 2006 for $262,400 has a single line in the Provenance category: “Thierry Cambelong, Switzerland, 1970s.” It’s every art dealer’s favorite mythical Canadian girlfriend, the Swiss private collection vaguely dated to the 1970s so it won’t fall afoul of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Interestingly enough, if you Google “Thierry Cambelong,” all you get are four entries from antiquities auctions. This mummy portrait of a striking young man from ca. 80-140 A.D. has even less to go on in terms of ownership history. There is no provenance category at all, only a reference to it having been published in a 1999 book on Romano-Egyptian funerary art.




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