Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Pristine Constantine gold solidus found in Somerset

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

An exceptional gold solidus of Emperor Constantine I, the first of its type ever discovered in Britain, will be sold at auction by the finder and landowner. It was discovered by a metal detector hobbyist in June of this year in Wanstrow, Somerset. June 7th was the first time he’d searched that field near an old Roman road. Wielding a second-hand metal detector, he first found a Roman brooch and some pieces of lead ore (the Roman road was used to transport lead from nearby mines). Then, a foot under the surface, he found a single gold coin.

Somerset Finds Liaison officers identified it as an extremely rare coin struck in Trier in ca. 313-15. The obverse features a laureate head of Constantine I facing right. It is inscribed CONSTANTI-NVS P[ius] F[elix] AVG[ustus] (“Constantine Pius and Blessed Revered One”).

The reverse depicts the emperor draped, cuirassed, with a spear in his right hand and a shield on his left arm. He rides a horse at the gallop against two enemy warriors, one trampled under the foot, the other about to be speared as he loses his shield. It is inscribed VIRTVS AUGSTI N(OSTRI) (“The valor of our Emperor”) and under the battle is the mint mark PTR which stands for Percussum Treveris, meaning “struck in Trier.”

Not only is this particular coin a unique find in Britain, only four gold coins from the Tetrarchy period (the system of four rulers, two Augusti, two Caesars, established by Domitian in 293 A.D.) have ever been found in Britain. Even more astonishing, the solidus is in near-mint uncirculated condition.

For comparison purposes, here’s an example of the same coin in one of the finest ancient coin collections in the world, the Münzkabinett of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It has the same die axis alignment (in this case the alignment is 6 o’clock, meaning the reverse of the coin is upside down in relation to the obverse), but the Somerset coin is .42 grams heavier and .2 mm wider. It didn’t experience the wear and tear of circulation the way the Münzkabinett’s solidus did.

The solidus goes under the hammer on September 17th at Dix Noonan Webb. The pre-sale estimate is £10,000-£12,000 ($12,000-$14,500).


Boy discovers mammoth tooth at family reunion

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

Jackson Hepner, 12, made an exciting find while exploring the banks of a creek on the property of The Inn at Honey Run in Millersburg, Ohio: a 10,000-year-old mammoth tooth. Innkeeper Jason Nies was hosting a family reunion at the bucolic location in Ohio’s Amish country on July 26th when his cousin’s son discovered the specimen. It was out of the water, partially buried in the mud on the left bank of Honey Run Creek.

“His dad and his uncle are both really into natural history and understanding nature,” Nies said. “They quickly jumped online and were Googling it, and that’s when we quickly found out this might be a mammoth or a mastodon tooth.” […]

“It’s just a neat find,” Nies said. “It’s not every day you get to touch and feel and see a mammoth tooth!”

Professors from Ohio State University, Ashland University and the College of Wooster verified the from pictures that it was a mammoth tooth.

Mammoth teeth are the biggest grinding teeth ever known to have existed, although the mammoths that roamed Ice Age Ohio were smaller than their Siberian counterparts and smaller than the mastodons who lived in the area at the same time. They were about the same size as modern African elephants. The newly-discovered tooth is an upper third molar and is more than seven inches long.

The Golgi apparatus-looking ridges on the plate (the top part of the tooth) would wear down over time. Replacements would grow in and the old, worn teeth shed six times over their 60-80 year lifespan. That’s why mammoth teeth are easier to find than mammoth bones, because one adult mammoth could lose a couple of dozen molars or more before it died.

Nigel Brush and Jeff Dilyard, geology professors at Ashland University, explored the creek bank after they confirmed the find was a mammoth tooth. They found no evidence of any other remains, so it’s likely the molar was a cast-off rather than a part of larger skeleton.

The tooth is at The Inn right now, but Jackson Hepner has written to Nies: “I would like to have my tooth back in my hands as soon as possible. I want to show my friends.” Damn right he does. Nies plans to give Jackson the tooth later this week, but he hopes to get it back at some point so it can go on display at The Inn. (Technically the landowners own all finds made on private property.)


Two intact tombs found in Mycenaean cemetery

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

Two intact Bronze Age tombs have been discovered in Aidonia cemetery near Nemea in Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula. Both chamber tombs date to the late Mycenaean period (1400-1200 B.C.) and were found complete with human remains and grave goods.

The Aidonia cemetery contains rock-cut chamber graves dating to the Mycenaean era (17th-12th century B.C.). They are of consistent design, each made of three sections: a road or pathway leading to an entrance leading to the burial chamber. The early Mycenaean tombs held richer and more extensive grave goods — jewelry, gold, weapons, luxury ceramics — while the late period chambers had more modest offerings. The newly-discovered tombs contained mainly pottery — figurines, clay vessels, false amphorae, basins — and smaller objects like buttons.

The tombs were reused over the centuries, with the primary (original) burials followed by secondary ones. One of the newly-discovered tombs contained two primary burials and 14 secondary ones. The other tomb contained three primary burials only and was not reused due to the entrance having been blocked by the collapse of the roof soon after its construction.  As with the older intact tomb discovered last year, that collapse kept it from being reused and thousands of year later saved it from looters by sealing off and obscuring the entrance.

The Mycenaean-era cemetery was discovered not by archaeologists but by looters in 1976. They plundered its ancient grave goods with shameless brutality for two years, with rival tomb raiders getting into literal shootouts at the site until the country put armed guards on the site in 1978 and the first official excavation began. The 1978-1980 and 1986 excavations unearthed 20 tombs, 18 of which had been looted.

While the pitched battles and overt despoiling of the cemetery ended when the government took over, the looting never did entirely stop. In 2016, the  Corinthian Ephorate of Antiquities launched a new excavation program by an international team of researchers to systematically explore the site. The team discovered a new cluster of tombs, most of which had been pillaged, likely in the early 2000s.


Sorcerer’s toolbox found in Pompeii

Monday, August 12th, 2019

A trove of amulets, figurines, jewels and decorative pieces made of Egyptian faience, bronze, bone, amber, amethyst, stone, glass and crystal has been unearthed at Pompeii. The remains of wooden chest with bronze hinges were found in an excavation of the House of the Garden in Regio V, the same elegant villa where in 2018 a charcoal inscription indicating the eruption of Vesuvius took place on October 24th instead of the conventional August 24th date. The find site was not in the elegant part of the house, but rather in a corner of what is believed to have been a service area.

Traces of the wood and the imprint of a box were preserved in the volcanic alchemy of that fateful day. The objects excavated from the imprint include two mirrors, numerous beads, a glass unguentarium, small phalluses, gemstone and glass intaglios (an artisan at work engraved into a carnelian, violet glass inscribed with the head of Dionysus, a dancing satyr engraved on an oval of clear glass, a spike of wheat carved out of amber), bronze bracelets, bronze bells, faience and amethyst scarabs, human and animal figures, buttons and a skull carved out of bone.

The contents mark the chest as more than a simple jewelry box, although there are numerous pieces of personal adornment that would have been worn by a woman like the amber beads and bronze bracelets. The figurines, scarabs, skulls, phalluses and other objects were protective amulets, figures and symbols with apotropaic value (ie, the power to ward off the evil eye, curses, etc.). Phalluses and Harpocrates, the Greek syncretic version of Horus, son of Isis and Serapis, were common presences in Roman households as protectors of children and mothers. Wheat was a symbol of prosperity. The chiming of bells chased away bad luck. The closed fist, the skull, the scarabs were all good luck charms.

In this villa, archaeologists found the remains of 10 victims of Vesuvius’ fury, among them women and children. Researchers are attempting to establish the connection between the 10, whether they were related, with DNA analysis. It’s possible that the chest of treasures belonged to one of these women. It was unlikely to be the property of the lady of the house because there was no gold at all in the box, and a member of this wealthy family would certainly have owned gold pieces as it was de rigeur among the moneyed elites of Pompeii in 79 A.D.

The artifacts have been conserved and will soon go on display in a new exhibition dedicated to the style and manufacture of jewels unearthed in Pompeii.


No McDonald’s at Baths of Caracalla

Monday, August 5th, 2019

There’s are dozens of McDonald’s in Rome — the flagship in Piazza di Spagna next to the Spanish Steps, one near the Fountain of Trevi, another at the Termini station, etc. — and there’s one a dozen miles south of the Eternal City that straddles an archaeological museum displaying a perfectly preserved stretch of Roman road. That last one only happened because the road was discovered during construction of the new location and McDonald’s paid to excavate, conserve and display the archaeological remains underneath its restaurant.

What it won’t get to do, however, is build a new Double Arches adjacent the soaring majesty of the actual arches of the Baths of Caracalla. The crazy thing is that it almost did.  Municipal authorities approved plans to build a huge 8,600-square-foot McDonald’s that would have seated 250 people, had a drive-through, a bouncy house and a big parking lot. Construction had even begun. That’s how residents found out about this plan and began to raise a huge stink, complete with on-site protests and vigils that got tons of press.

Finally, Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli announced on Facebook on Wednesday that the ministry had canceled the authorization for construction.  How it got to the point where the state authorities had to reverse the municipality’s approval is a mystery. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi says she knew nothing about it until she read about the protests in the paper and that she supported the Bonisoli’s decision. “The wonders of Rome must be protected,” she wrote on Twitter (to much derision in comments from Romans sick to death of the garbage that is choking the city this hot summer).

There will be an inquiry of dubious efficacy to figure out how this debacle went down, and there’s still a chance McD’s will take them to court to get to build on a UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site as planned. It wouldn’t be the first time. For now, at least, the Baths of Caracalla will be reserved for summer operas and McFlurry-free tourists.


Forgotten head of Alexander found in Macedonian museum

Sunday, August 4th, 2019

A long forgotten marble head of Alexander the Great has been rediscovered in storage at the Archaeological Museum of Veroia in Macedonia, Greece, announced Angeliki Kotarides, head of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Imathia. It was found in a corner of the museum’s warehouse, hidden between crates of pottery, old masonry and dust. It had suffered damage from centuries of rough treatment, but Kotarides immediately recognized the “the leonine mane, the dreamy eyes, the ineffable gaze” so characteristic of the iconography of Alexander the Great.

Veroia was an important city in the Macedonian kingdom. Under the Argead dynasty (Philip and his son Alexander were the 5th and 4th to last Argead kings), Veroia was the second most important city after the capital of Pella. Philip’s resplendent tomb in Vergina is just 7 miles southeast of the center of Veroia. Classical and Hellenistic era cemeteries from the 5th through the 2nd century B.C. practically surround the town. Rock-cut tombs, pit and cist graves have been unearthed in cemeteries in northeast, southeast and southwest Veroia.

The museum is small but dense with exceptional artifacts excavated in the area that date from the Neolithic through the Ottoman period, with particular emphasis on its rich Classical and Hellenistic history. The Hellenistic-era sculpture of Alexander was discovered in the 1970s in a rubble pile near the town in the Imathian plain. It had been reused as building material centuries ago.

After conservation and cleaning, the rediscovered Alexander will go on display at the museum in 2020. It will join another fine sculpture, a 2nd century B.C. head of Medusa, that was discovered in construction rubble, believed to have been reused in the city’s north wall.


Celtic woman buried in tree coffin found in Zurich

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

In March of 2017, municipal archaeologists unearthed the grave of a Celtic woman at the Kern school complex in Zurich where a new gym was being built. The tomb was found in front of the west façade of the school building, just a few feet from where the foundation of the schoolhouse had been constructed in 1862.

While the neighborhood is archaeologically sensitive and graves have been found during earlier bouts of construction, most of them dated to the early Middle Ages. It is extremely rare to find a prehistoric grave in a highly developed urban area, and even more rare to find one laden with rich grave goods as this one was. Only one other grave of this date has been unearthed in this area before. It was found in 1903 and held the remains of a Celtic man buried with a sword, shield and lance of high quality. It was located about 80 meters (262 feet) away from the recent find.

The grave discovered in 2017 held the skeletal remains of a woman who had been buried in a hollowed out tree trunk. Only the shape of it was visible in the grave, but it was confirmed by the presence of wood residues. The bones were fragmentary. The individual was identified as a woman by the clothing and jewelry interred with her. She was adorned with a delicate bronze belt chain with pendants and a hook closure. She also wore bronze bracelets and a rich necklace strung with beads of amber, blue and yellow glass with two brooches as fasteners. Her robe was closed with several iron fibulae. The objects date to the grave to 250-200 B.C., the early Iron Age.

Sections of the grave were removed en bloc to be excavated and studied further in laboratory conditions, with particular focus on textile remnants. Zurich’s archaeology department has been studying the finds ever since, and has now released the results of their examination.

Stable isotope analysis of her bones revealed that she was a local woman, raised in Zurich, probably in the Limmat Valley. Examination of her bones and teeth found she was about 40 years old when she died and had not performed a great deal of physical labour. Tooth decay points to her having enjoyed a diet high in starchy or sweet foods. Fragments of textiles, fur and leather found in the soil indicate she was buried in a dress made of fine sheep’s wool, then wrapped in a woolen cloth and a coat made of sheepskin.

The newly discovered grave complements today’s picture of the Celtic settlement history in the Zurich area. For a long time Zurich was considered to have been founded by Roman. Archaeological excavations and evaluations of recent years, however, provided evidence for a town-like settlement of the Celts on the Lindenhof hill already from the first half of the 1st century B.C., at least half a century before the arrival of the Romans. This early city then merged seamlessly with the Roman “Turicum”. The two tombs at the Kern school complex are around 100 years older than this first settlement on the Lindenhof and probably belonged to one of several smaller settlements around Zurich, probably in the Sihlfeld, but so far still undiscovered.


LoC digitizes 2,000-year-old Buddhist scroll

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

The Library of Congress has conserved and digitized an extremely rare 2,000-year-old Buddhist scroll. The scroll was written in carbon ink on strips of birch bark in Gandhara, an ancient Buddhist kingdom in the Peshawar Valley, today the northern borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Dating from between the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., it is one of the oldest known Buddhist manuscripts.

The Gandhara Kingdom was one of the earliest centers of Buddhism after it moved out of India and Gandhara monks were instrumental in the expansion of Buddhism to Persia and India from their strategic location along the Silk Road. Very little was known about the doctrine and practice of Buddhism in Gandhara until a group of 30 scrolls were discovered in the 1990s. Before then, scholars had had to rely solely on inscriptions, coins and sculptures for information, and these sources have little in the way of doctrinal detail. The scrolls had been enclosed in terracotta jars and ritually interred in a stupa, monastic religious structures used as reliquaries. Even in their fragmentary condition, as the only original documents about Gandharan Buddhism, the scrolls were essential to understanding its practice. As a group, they are the earliest known Buddhist texts surviving.

Written in the Gandhari Prakrit language, a derivative of Sanskrit, in the Kharoshthi style script on both sides of the bark scroll, the text is read from top to bottom, right to left, and the bark flipped vertically to right on the other side. The LoC’s scroll tells the story of the 13 Buddhas who were the predecessors of Shakyamuni Buddha, aka Siddhartha Gautama, aka the Buddha. It is narrated in his voice and summarizes the biographies and teachings of each of the 13 Buddhas before him before explaining his own birth and emergence as Buddha and predicting the arrival of another Buddha, Maitreya.

When the Library of Congress acquired the scroll from a private collector in 2003, it was rolled up in a Parker Pen box. It had not, needless to say, been kept in conservation-appropriate conditions in that pen case. It was in fragments and extremely brittle. Nonetheless, between 75 and 80% of the original text survived which is extremely rare for Gandharan manuscripts, most of which survive in far smaller fragments. That any of these birch bark scrolls survived at all is due to the altitude and dry climate of the Gandharan region.

The LoC’s Gandhara scroll is in six large fragments and 130 smaller pieces. Only the beginning and end of the text are missing. Now that they have been artfully conserved by Library of Congress experts, the fragments no longer live curled up in a pen case. They are stored flat in two custom-built transparent boxes, one holding the six large pieces, the other the smaller fragments. It took many years of study and even more years of incredibly painstaking conservation to get to this result. Specialized tools — gold-handled dental tools, handmade light glass weights, bamboo lifters — had to be made specifically for this complex project.

With regard to conservation, it is safe to say that the Gandhara scroll is one of the most complicated and fragile items ever treated at the Library of Congress. The scroll arrived folded and packed in an ordinary pen case, accompanied by a handwritten note: “Extremely fragile, do not open unless necessary.” It took several years of thought and planning to devise a treatment strategy. A memorable anecdote from this time period is that the conservator practiced her unrolling technique on a dried-up cigar—an item that only approximates the difficulty of working with a compacted birch bark scroll.

With assistance from a conservator at the British Library who had worked on similarly ancient materials, the treatment plan was put into action: gradual humidification over a few days, careful unrolling by hand with precision tools on a sheet of inert glass, followed by placing another sheet of glass on top once the scroll was completely unrolled and sealing the edges. The six larger fragments with the majority of the text were placed inside one glass housing, while another was used for the more than 100 smaller fragments, some with only parts of a single syllable. Both glass housings were then placed in specially constructed drop-spine boxes designed to protect the scroll from damage caused by vibration.

Even in their fancy new bespoke cases, the fragments are far too delicate to be placed on public display. The Library of Congress has therefore made this exceptional record of Buddhist history accessible to all by digitizing it. Both sides of all fragments can be viewed in extremely high resolution (much higher than the photos I’ve included here) on the Library of Congress website.


Undergrad student finds unusual figurine in Peru

Wednesday, July 31st, 2019

A Harvard undergraduate excavating the Moche archaeological site in San José de Moro, Peru, has unearthed a rare intact figurine. Second-year student Caroline Coolidge was digging in Peru as part of a summer archaeology program when she saw a little face peering up at her through the soil. Further excavation revealed an intact figurine in pristine condition, the first complete pottery artifact discovered this season.

The figurine dates to the transitional period between the decline of the Moche and the rise of the Lambayeque cultures in the area, about 1,000 years ago.

In addition to its pristine condition, what made Coolidge’s discovery so unusual was the absence of other objects nearby. “Typically, this type of artifact would be included in a burial,” she said, “but there were no burials found near it.” […]

Coolidge is eager to find out more about what her figurine might mean—archaeologists at the site suspect it may have been used as a fertility offering. [Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies Gary] Urton called it “an extraordinary piece” and “one of the most complete and beautiful figurines we have brought up from here in several years.” Coolidge plans to write about the artifact for her final class project and will study its composition and compare it with similar finds at the site in recent years, she said, to determine “its cultural significance and where it fits within the region’s chronology.”

Her exciting find on the five-week program, run by Pontifícia Universidad Católica del Perú in collaboration with the Harvard Summer School Study Abroad Program, has so inspired Coolidge that she has changed her planned course of study at the university. She will now either concentrate in archaeology or make it a “secondary field of study.” Is that what we called a minor in my day? It should be a second major at least, imho, given what a cool head start she got this summer.


More about Iron Age warrior grave

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

Just a quick link today because I’m travelling. Museum Crush (which is consistently awesome and you should read regularly) has an excellent article about the unique Iron Age warrior grave found in West Sussex in 2008. It’s full of details about the discovery from one of the archaeologists on the scene and has the best photographs I’ve seen.

NO I AM NOT JEALOUS. Okay yes I’m totally jealous.





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