Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Early Roman wall fresco found in London

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Archaeologists with the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have discovered the remains of an elaborate wall fresco from the late 1st century A.D. which makes it one of the earliest extant frescos in Roman Britain. The team was excavating in advance of construction of an office building at 21 Lime Street in central London when they found the painted wall lying face down in the ground. Ian Betts, MOLA’s building materials specialist, identified it as likely a frescoed surface even though the painted side wasn’t visible by the characteristic markings on the daub to which the plaster was applied. To keep any surviving paint from flaking off, conservators removed the fresco in 16 sections, cutting out blocks of soil around them. That way the painted plaster surface was protected by the soil that’s been protecting it for 2,000 years.

The 16 soil blocks were moved to the conservation lab where experts set immediately to work micro-excavating the soil before it dried. The revealed a fresco 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) wide and 1.5 meters (5 feet) high with a painted surface just a single millimeter thick. Solid red panels bordered with thin cream pin stripes are divided by a central section that depicts a stylized candelabrum with deer perched on the top level eating greens, a pair of parakeets underneath them and some fruit underneath them. The background is black and green with vertical cream stripes on the edges. The design is the first of its kind found in Britain. The closest example of it was found in a villa in Cologne, Germany.

The painter had to have been a highly skilled master craftsmen employed by people of signficant wealth. He used natural earth pigments accented with expensive cinnabar red, a mercuric sulphide pigment which was mined in Spain and had to be imported to London. This was top quality work that would only be seen in the most luxurious homes of the era. Small fresco fragments have been discovered before in Lime Street, so it must have been a toney neighborhood in early Roman London where the Joneses kept up with each other by decorating their walls with the most expensive continental-style artworks. This fresco adorned the wall of a public room in the house, perhaps a reception room, where it signalled to all visitors the homeowner’s wealth and taste.

While small pieces of frescoes are more common, a large section of painted wall like this is a very rare find. This is the first such discovery in 30 years. It survived, in classic archaeological irony, because of its destruction. The house whose wall it decorated was demolished in around 100 A.D. to make room for London’s second forum and basilica, the civic and commercial epicenter of the city and at three stories high occupying two hectares of land, the largest building north of the Alps, larger than St. Paul’s Cathedral. The frescoed wall was toppled and fall paint side down into the soil. The forum was built on top of it, preserving it for posterity.

The basilica, forum and most other public buildings were systematically destroyed by Roman troops in 300 A.D. to punish the city for its support of the usurper Carausius. The only civic structure left standing was the defensive wall. After the revival of London’s fortunes in the Middle Ages, a market sprang up on the site of the old forum. In 1881, the current Leadenhall Market was built there. The remains of one of the basilica’s arches were discovered during construction and in the 1980s more forum remains were found on the 21 Lime Street site. MOLA excavations in 1990 and 2001 found sections of the floor of the forum’s east wing. The most recent excavation had to dig 20 feet under the surface to find the toppled wall.

MOLA experts are still studying the fresco and its context. They hope to be able to reconstruct a view of what the neighborhood looked like in the early decades of Roman London before the construction of the forum.

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Remains of monumental Roman arcade discovered in Colchester

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

The remains of a monumental Roman column arcade 120 meters (394 feet) long have been unearthed in the old town center of Colchester in Essex, England. The Colchester Archaeological Trust has been excavating the site on 97 High Street in advance of construction of a new apartment building. The site was known to be inside the precinct of the ancient Roman Temple of the Deified Claudius and small finds have been made in the area over the past 60 years, but because there was an office building on the spot a thorough excavation was not possible. When the offices were demolished to make way for the new block of flats, archaeologists were able to fully explore the site and realized for the first time just how massive a structure the arcade was.

Colchester is the oldest recorded Roman town in Britain. The Romans built a legionary fortress there after the conquest of Britain in 43 A.D., and six years later the town was renamed Camulodunum and founded as a veteran colony. It was the first capital of Britannia province. Public buildings — a theater, the town council house, a forum — were constructed befitting the new capital. A large temple completed after the death of emperor Claudius in 54 A.D. was dedicated to him as the Temple of the Deified Claudius. It was the largest classical temple built in Britain and the only one in the province known to have been dedicated to Claudius.

The city was destroyed in the Boudiccan revolt of 61 A.D. The residents fled to the safety of the temple whose cella (inner chamber) had thick, windowless walls and massive bronze doors. Boudicca’s Iceni warriors besieged the temple for two days before storming it and putting it to the torch along with the rest of the town. Camulodunum was rebuilt after the revolt was suppressed. New city walls were built between 65 and 80 A.D., and around the same time the temple was rebuilt within an even grander temple precinct. Later additions expanded the temple and precinct. At its peak in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Temple of the Deified Claudius had a massive monumental arch in the center flanked by an arcade of 14 columns on each side. The vast scale of the temple and precinct was unique in Britain.

Phillip Crummy, the [Colchester Archaeological Trust]‘s director told The Telegraph: “This arcade is the largest of its kind in Britain. Its closest rival in terms of size stands in what was Gaul, in northern France, and shares some of the architecture we can see in Colchester today – but that is only around 70-metres long.

“The original arcade and its grand columns are similar to those you see in Bath, at the Roman Baths. It really is an extraordinary find and confirms the grandeur and richness of its Roman culture.”

Large sections of the temple were intact through the Saxon period when it became known as King Coel’s Palace. By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, the “palace” was in ruins, but the Normans used the base of the temple as the foundation for Colchester Castle, now a museum. The temple podium is still visible in the vaults underneath the castle.

Remains of the monumental central archway were first discovered in 1931. Subsequent investigations in 1953 and 1964 unearthed more of the arcade, but the remains were reburied. It wasn’t until a 2013 evaluation of the site that a large section of the massive foundations of the arcade was discovered. On June 12th, 2014, the archaeological team surveying 97 High Street found a collapsed brick and stone pier from the monumental arcade. Made of alternating layers of brick and stone, the column was found inside the Norman-era layer. It’s evidence that at least part of the colonnade was still standing when the Normans arrived. Archaeologists believe the Normans stripped the prized marble facing stones of the arcade to use in the construction of the castle and then toppled what was left of the column.

Flying Trade Group, the developers who are constructing the new apartments on the site, plan to preserve the foundations and columns of the arcade in the ground floor of the building. They will install a café with glass panels in the floor that reveal the ancient remains. The café/archaeological park will raise money for local and international charities including World Food Aid.

If you’re anywhere near Colchester on Saturday, February 13th, you can surprise your history nerd sweetheart with a romantic early Valentine’s Day outing to the Claudius Temple arcade excavation. From 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM, visitors are welcome to view the site. All 13 meters (43 feet) of the arcade’s foundations will be visible with special labels, lighting and projected digital reconstructions installed just for the day.

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Massive illegal dumpsite found in Roman catacomb

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Roman police have discovered tons of refuse, everything from household trash to industrial waste, illegally dumped in the 2nd and 3rd century A.D. catacombs of Tor Fiscale, an archaeological park in east Rome. Situated on the Via Latina near the junction with the ancient Appian Way, the Tor Fiscale park is part of the vast Appian Way Regional Park. The small park is dense with archaeological riches. It is at the crossroads of six Roman and one Renaissance aqueduct whose arched galleries dominate the landscape alongside the 13th century tower that gives the park its name. It is replete with remains of ancient luxury villas, homes, tombs and underground caves dug out of soft volcanic tufa. Initially carved to quarry the stone, the caves were used by early Christians for gatherings and burials during the imperial era when the religion was viewed with suspicion and its adherents sometimes persecuted.

Authorities came to suspect something was rotten underground during an investigation of illegal car scrapyards and waste disposal rackets in the area. On January 26th, about 20 people — police officers, personnel from Italy’s Regional Environmental Protection Agency (ARPA), municipal workers and members of the archaeological speleology organization Sotterranei di Roma (Undergrounds of Rome) — worked together to explore miles of the underground tunnels. They found a shocking amount of waste, including old refrigerators, mattresses, electronics, tires, batteries, hundreds of bags of organic materials full of various molds that may have been used in the cultivation of mushrooms.

In one of the deepest tunnels, they found a veritable lake of greasy black goo that is likely used motor oil. On the surface alone this lake of hydrocarbon pollution covers about 200 square meters (2,150 square feet), and preliminary analysis found the lake is more than a foot deep, so the total volume of toxic filth in this one spot alone is something in the neighborhood of 800 cubic meters (28,250 cubic feet). At some points the vaults of the tunnel appear to be impregnated with the goop, suggesting it was dumped from above rather than transported deep into the caves. The team took samples of the fluid to identify it and they will examine the surface to locate the entry point. There will also be extensive testing to assess whether the oil has seeped into the water table.

After making the shocking discovery, police used drones to fully explore the network of bat-and-mice-infested tunnels to try to establish the extent of the dumping.

It is thought that local businesses and residents have been using the site to cheaply dispose of their unwanted goods for years. Police even discovered that unscrupulous dumpers had drilled shafts down into the caves from above, which they used as rubbish chutes to quickly dispose of their unwanted goods.

Authorities have closed the entrances to the caves on Via Demetriade and Via di Torre Branca, but of course that won’t stop people from using their homemade garbage chutes. The municipal police are investigating the case in the hopes of finding who is responsible, at least most recently, for this ruthless assault on Rome’s cultural history and environmental health.

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Earliest evidence of fermentation found in Sweden

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating a 9,200 year-old settlement on the banks of the long-defunct Lake Vesan near the Baltic Sea coast in Sölvesborg, southern Sweden, have discovered evidence of a massive fish fermentation operation. They found pine bark and an incredibly dense concentration of fish bones, about 30,000 of them per square meter. Underneath the fish bone layer was an oblong pit dug into the clay soil. The pit was rimmed with five larger postholes and 32 smaller stakeholes.

The team looked to ethnographic studies of current circumpolar societies which rely on fish as their primary source of sustenance for comparison. They found that these fish-dependent cultures cope with large catches over a short fishing season by fermenting the fish. In a cold climate with a very short summer, there just isn’t the time to dry or smoke all the fish necessary to sustain life over the long winter. Some areas are too damp for drying to work at all. The cold climate has one major advantage: it is possible to ferment food without adding salt. Traditional circumpolar people like Inuits from Greenland, the Jawina in Kamchatka and the Karelians in Finland, don’t use salt. They dig holes in the ground, fill them with fish and cover the pits with animal skins, stones or earth, much like the people on the shores of Lake Vesan may have been doing 9,200 years ago.

Analysis of the remains suggests that fish had been fermented in that pit. The presence of a small number of wild boar and seal remains may indicate the Mesolithic fishermen wrapped the fish in animal skins that were then attached to the posts in the holes. The pit in that scenario provided air circulation underneath the fermenting fish. Once fermented, the flesh could be removed and the bones dumped into the pit. Another possibility is that the fish were in a pit lined with seal and boar remains (blubber and fat acidify the fish and aid in the fermentation process) and covered with pine bark. Pine bark is also acidic and would help ensure that the fish began to ferment right away rather than just rotting.

Using fine mesh sieves to sift through the soil and capture every tiny fish bone and calculating from the number of bones found at the site, the team discovered that at least 60 tons of freshwater fish from the lake, mostly common roach, were caught there. It’s the world’s earliest evidence of fermentation, and it has the potential to rewrite the timeline of the Early Mesolithic.

Traps to capture large numbers of fish and game have been found before from this period, large enough numbers that some form of storage would have been necessary. Without direct archaeological evidence of long-term and large-scale storage, however, the preservation of food has been seen as the province of more complex, sedentary Neolithic farming communities which have pottery, granaries and silos to attest to their long-term storage of grain. This new direct evidence of storage by fermentation in the Mesolithic indicates a more socially complex culture with previously unrecognized technological skill and adaptability to a rapidly changing environment.

The discovery is also an indication that Nordic societies were far more developed 9,200 years ago than what was previously believed. The findings are important as it is usually argued that people in the north lived relatively mobile lives, while people in the Levant – a large area in the Middle East – became settled and began to farm and raise cattle much earlier.

“These findings indicate a different time line, with Nordic foragers settling much earlier and starting to take advantage of the lakes and sea to harvest and process fish. From a global perspective, the development in the Nordic region could correspond to that of the Middle East at the time,” says Adam Boethius.

That’s not to say that this was a farming community. There is no evidence of cultivation of crops. The Nordic peoples of the Early Mesolithic were still foragers, but the scale of the fermentation indicates they may have been semi-sedentary, ie, mobile, but with a regularly maintained home base. Judging from the kind of game and marine life killed at what stages in life, the lakeside settlement was occupied most of the year, from late summer to late spring, particularly in the coldest part of the winter. That makes this site the earliest winter-summer settlement in southern Scandinavia and the earliest settlement of any kind on the east coast of Sweden.

The findings have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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Ancient First Nations’ clay may kill drug-resistant bacteria

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

History steps in again to help fight the terrifying scourge of a post-antibiotic world in which even the smallest infection can cause death and entire fields of medical technology — organ transplants, device transplants, cosmetic surgery — are left undefended against the onslaught of pathogens. Last year there was the very promising study of a salve from the 10th century Anglo-Saxon home health remedies volume Bald’s Leechbook which was found to slaughter Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Now researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have found a glimmer of hope in the antimicrobial properties of a local clay from Kisameet Bay, British Columbia.

The 400,000 ton clay deposit developed in the bay about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. The people of the Heiltsuk First Nation, whose traditional territory includes Kisameet Bay, have used the clay for medicinal purposes for centuries. They take it internally for illnesses like ulcerative colitis and duodenal ulcers, and externally for problems like burns and phlebitis.

Studies from the 1940s onwards have found that Kisameet clay is different from your garden variety kaolinite or bentonite clays. It has a low mineral content in which the mica-like mineral biotite dominates. There’s also a flourishing community of up to 3,000 different taxa of microbes living in the deposit, among them Actinobacteria which may have an antimicrobial effect on non-local microbes.

The UBC research team wanted to see how the Kisameet Bay clay would deal with a panel of the scariest pathogens, the ESKAPE strains of bacteria.

The so-called ESKAPE pathogens — Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacter species — cause the majority of U.S. hospital infections and effectively ‘escape’ the effects of antibacterial drugs.

“Infections caused by ESKAPE bacteria are essentially untreatable and contribute to increasing mortality in hospitals,” said UBC microbiologist Julian Davies, co-author of the paper published today in the American Society for Microbiology’s mBio journal.

The collected samples of 16 ESKAPE strains from hospitals and a wastewater treatment plant in Vancouver. Each sample was grown in vitro and each exhibited multidrug resistance. The resistant cells were then suspended either in plain water or in a solution including desiccated Kisameet clay particles. The team tested the samples at regular time intervals — 0, 5 and 24 hours — to see if the clay was reducing the number of detectable pathogens and how long it took to do so. The results were pretty bloody amazing.

Here’s a chart that illustrates the effect of Kisameet clay on six of the pathogens in the study. The y-axis is the concentration of pathogens in the sample. The x-axis is time. The ^ next to the bars is an indicator that zero viable cells could be recovered.

The study also found the clay has antifungal properties and shows the same antibacterial properties even when no actual mineral particles are extracted. An aqueous extract works as well, which means the active ingredients that are doing such a fine job of beating up resistant bacteria could be removed from the clay and used in medical preparations.

This research is funded in part by a corporation with a dog in the hunt: cosmetics concern Kisameet Glacial Clay which plans to market the clay’s healing properties. The good news is the UBC researchers won’t have to beg for spare change to staff their project like the University of Nottingham study of Bald’s eye salve was forced to do, but I’ll be very curious to see their results repeated by third parties with no connection to clay sellers. Also in vivo tests are essential.

Read the full study here.

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Swiss return 2 sarcophaguses, 45 boxes of Etruscan art to Italy

Monday, February 1st, 2016

The Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva returned two priceless earthenware sarcophaguses and 45 boxes of exceptional Etruscan artworks to Italy last month. They were found where tens of thousands of looted ancient artifacts worth hundreds of millions of dollars are usually found: in a giant warehouse at the Geneva Free Ports. They had been there for 15 years, stashed in the time of man’s innocency when looters, smugglers, middlemen and their brothers and sisters in the high-end antiquities market could do whatever the hell they wanted in Switzerland and nobody would question them.

Oh, if the walls of those warehouses could talk, what tales they would tell! Unique treasures fresh from the illegal dig, mud and salts still caked on the surface, files and Polaroids of even more unique treasures, many of them already in the hands of major museums, “Swiss private collection” ownership histories so blatantly fake they would make a seven-year-old forging a sick note from his mother stare in awed wonder at the sheer brazenness of it.

This particular smuggler’s cove was discovered after Italian authorities asked the Swiss to look for an Etruscan sarcophagus illegally excavated and thought to have been smuggled out of the country into Switzerland. The request, made in March of 2014, launched a search of the warehouse. The sarcophagus they were looking for wasn’t there, but a lot more was.

A search led by prosecutor Claudio Mascotto, from the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva, at the Geneva Free Ports revealed an unexpected treasure. Two rare sarcophaguses of Etruscan origin – their lid representing a man and a woman lying – were found in a warehouse, as well as many other invaluable archaeological remains. The antiques had been stored there for more than 15 years, registered under the name of an offshore company.

The prosecutor ordered the seizure of the sarcophaguses first, then extended the decision to all items, considering their suspected illegal provenance. Among these are bas-reliefs, vases and fragments of decorated vases, frescos, heads, busts, and several other votive or religious pieces.

An expert examined the artifacts and determined they were likely looted from the central Italian regions of Umbria and Lazio which were Etruscan territory in the first millennium B.C. Investigators from the Carabinieri Art Squad were able to establish a connection between some of the artifacts and the tomb robbers whose shenanigans had sparked the initial investigation.

The legal machinery of Italy and Switzerland agreed that the objects should be returned to Italy, but the repatriation process was delayed by an appeal from the warehouse owner who wanted to keep the goods until he got paid for 15 years worth of storage. Why he had been so saintly as to allow a decade and a half of unpaid bills is unclear.

The press release from the Geneva Prosecutor’s Office didn’t name the person who filled the warehouse with ancient treasure, referring to him only as a “former high-profile British art dealer, whose name has been linked in the past to the trading of several looted antiquities throughout the world.” That’s Robin Symes. Here’s a quick summary of the Symes saga I wrote ages ago, but to make a brief overview of a long story even shorter, for many decades Symes was the antiquities dealer to the rich and famous and the biggest museums in the world. The champagne lifestyle of chauffeured Bentley and homes in London, New York, Athens and the Cyclades islands came to an abrupt end when his business parter and long-time companion, Christo Michaelides, died in an accidental fall in 1999. The subsequent lawsuit from the deep-pocketed Michaelides family drove Symes into bankruptcy and, thanks to his inability to stop perjuring himself for one second, jail.

While the lawsuit was ongoing, Symes lived in Geneva where he could stuff untold ancient artifacts into Free Port warehouses. Some of the key lies he told on the stand, in fact, were about his warehouse activities. He told the court that he had five warehouses in Geneva holding his inventory when in reality he had 29 of them spread throughout London, New York and Geneva.

Symes, whose current whereabouts are unknown, cannot be prosecuted in Italy because the statute of limitations has expired, but this repatriation could have a chain reaction that puts pressure on the UK to return more than 700 disputed artifacts being held by the Symes’ liquidator. Objects in dispute have turned up on auction catalogues and in 2010 the Home Office instructed the liquidator to sell 1,000 pieces from Symes’ estate to settle his exorbitant tax bill. Italy complained vociferously and the sales were withdrawn, but the question of what to do with Symes’ stolen lucre is still unsettled. If Switzerland, which only ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 2003 and was the pivot point for this illegal traffic for decades, can send Symes’ loot back to Italy, the UK should certainly feel the heat.

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Early Christian church with unique frescoes found in Turkey

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the vast networks of rock-cut caves underneath the massive Byzantine-era castle in the town of Nevşehir, Central Anatolia Region, Turkey, have discovered an ancient church with unique frescoes depicting Biblical scenes not seen before in other churches of the period. Preliminary estimates suggest the church dates to the 5th century and the frescoes that have been revealed so far — on the ceiling and very tops of the walls — are still in brilliant color. There are scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Ascension, saints and Old Testament prophets including Moses and Elijah.

Nevşehir Mayor Hasan Ünver said the frescoes in the church showed the rise of Jesus the Christ into the sky and the killing of the bad souls.

“We know that such frescoes have so far never been seen in any other church,” Ünver said[....]

“It is reported that some of the frescoes here are unique. There are exciting depictions like fish falling from the hand of Jesus Christ, him rising up into the sky, and the bad souls being killed.”

That reference to bad souls being killed is not clear to me. It could be the Last Judgement, I suppose, but the souls of the wicked are damned, not killed. They wish they were killed! That’s kind of the whole point of Hell. I wonder if it’s a reference to the Harrowing of Hell derived from 1 Peter 3:19-20 that refers to Jesus preaching to evil souls/spirits (ie, Luciferian demons, rather than the souls of dead people) imprisoned in Limbo/Hell/Hades. It was a popular theme in Orthodox art. In fact, it first appears in Orthodox art significantly earlier than in Catholic art. The Western tradition appears to have only begun to borrow it from the Orthodox in the 8th century.

The underground city of Nevşehir was first unearthed in 2014 and while several other towns in the region, most famously Göreme, are known for their ancient rock-cut tunnel systems, the one in Nevşehir is believed to be the largest covering an area of ​​360,000 square meters with some tunnels more than four miles long. People have been beehiving under this place for an estimated 5,000 years. They cut out everything from water conduits to private dwellings to hermit cells and Christian churches. Nevşehir Castle Urban Transformation Project has been excavating the tunnels underneath the castle and 11 neighborhoods in the old town center. They’re excited at the prospect that the discovery of such early frescoes with unique iconography could make Nevşehir a site of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians.

Nevşehir was in what had once been the kingdom of Cappadocia, absorbed into the Roman Empire by Tiberius in 17 A.D. The tunnels were used as catacombs during the thornier years of Christian persecution, but the practice of cutting whole churches out of the rock grew out of the 4th century anchorite tradition. Cappadocia was an important center of Church thought in the 4th century, known particularly for the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great (bishop and saint), Gregory of Nyssa (bishop and saint) and Gregory of Nazianzus (archbishop and saint), who sought to introduce the Greek philosophical rigor to Christian theology. It was Saint Basil who encouraged the development of nascent anchorite communities where people who wished to withdraw from the world could dedicate the rest of their lives to penance and prayer. In the Nevşehir area, the anchorites made cells for themselves by digging them out of the soft rock. Over time the underground monastic communities carved themselves out increasingly large and elaborate churches.

Right now excavation has been halted because of excessive humidity which is deadly to ancient frescoed walls. The space must be dried gradually to ensure there is no paint loss or fading. From what has already been exposed, archaeologists can see that whole sections of the frescoed walls have collapsed inward, likely due to rain and snow. They hope the fragments may be recoverable in the fill, but won’t be back until the weather warms up this spring and all the moisture has evaporated. At that point they will continue removing the earth, hopefully discovering restorable pieces of the wall paintings or, in the best case scenario, sections of intact side walls as they dig down.

Once the church is fully excavated, we’ll know its dimensions — right now we can’t even tell how high it is — and get a glimpse of what may prove to be very significant early and transitional iconographic elements in the history of Byzantine art.

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2,500-year-old footprints of people, dogs found in Arizona

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

I don’t quite have it in me yet to do a research-intensive post but I can’t stand to be out for three days in a row, especially since you have all been so incredibly solicitous of my health. Thank you so much for your wonderfully supportive comments, good wishes, wise advice and even recipes. :thanks:

Archaeologists excavating the site of a new highway to be built along Interstate 10 outside Tucson, Arizona, have discovered footprints left by a Native American farming community 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. The prints of men, women, children and dogs were left in the mud during a wet day. The mud dried into a solid crust and then a few days later a flash flood inundated the area with a layer of sandy silt that preserved the prints in perpetuity.

The prints are so extensive and clear that it’s possible to trace people’s movements during the course of the day. The imprints of irrigation ditches have also survived, and the business of the print groupings suggest the adults were working assiduously to manage the irrigation system during heavy rain or a rise in the nearby Santa Cruz River. They walked from one irrigation gate to another, building or flattening earthwork dams to direct the extra water to their maize plants. There are prints of an adult walking next to a child and marks left when the adult picked up the child before putting him or her back down. There are prints of adults walking to the irrigation canals while children and a dog follow them.

While far older footprints have been found in North America (ca. 13,000 years old), these are likely the oldest ever discovered north of Mexico in the Southwest, and they are the earliest evidence of formal farming in the US Southwest.

The ancient civilization that lived here represents what archaeologists call the early agricultural period, a time even before people in the region had developed ceramics.

“It’s a transition era from a lifestyle defined by hunter-gatherers to a settling down,” said Jerome Hesse, with SWCA Environmental Consultants.

Exactly how the people here lived their lives or organized their society is unknown, but Hesse said they likely lived at least part of the year at this and other sites in the region, cultivating crops in irrigated fields.

So far 4,300 square feet of the site have been exposed, and there’s likely more to be found, but time is not on archaeology’s side. The construction project will not be delayed or moved and it will destroy this unique discovery. In order to preserve what they can of this treasure, archaeologists have taken latex and epoxy molds of specific footprints, and the site is being documented virtually with high-resolution 3D models.

Here are a few of the models for you to explore. Keep an eye on the Southwest Archaeology blog for more to come.

Sunset Mesa Footprints
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

Sunset Mesa Footprint
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

Sunset Mesa Footprints
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

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Harihara head and body reunited after 130 years

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

France has returned the head of a 7th century statue of the Hindu god Harihara to Cambodia more than 130 years after it was removed. The head was taken from the Phnom Da temple in Cambodia’s southern Takeo province in 1882 or 1883 by French linguist and archaeologist Étienne Aymonier who was the first to fully explore and document Khmer ruins in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in the late 19th century. Cambodia was a protectorate of France at that time, part of the colony of French Indochina, and Aymonier was the colonial administrator. From 1874 through 1882 or 1883, Aymonier surveyed ancient temples and monasteries in southern Cambodia and helped himself to a large number of artifacts which he brought back to France with him. Aymonier’s collection of Khmer treasures went on display at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. The next year they were joined to the Asian collection of the Guimet Museum in Paris.

Harihara is a syncretic deity that blends elements of Vishnu and Shiva, the deities of creation and destruction. The iconography of the statue head is typical of Harihara: the elaborate hairstyle of braids bound together in a multilayer bun on one side of the top of the head, a cylindrical mitre on the other side, a third eye on the forehead and a crescent moon in the middle of the hair.

While the head was in the museum in France, in 1913 French archaeologist Henri Parmentier found the headless body of a statue in Phnom Da. In 1944 the body was moved to the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Just over a decade later in 1955, Cambodian archaeology expert Pierre Dupont posited that the head in the Guimet and the body in the Phnom Penh museum belonged together.

Dupont’s hypothesis was recently proved correct when the restoration workshop of the National Museum made a mold of the upper body and sent it to France. It matched the head perfectly. The head and other artifacts collected by Aymonier now at the Guimet were legally exported, so there was no question of a lawsuit or court case. Aymonier had the permission of King Norodom to export the works to France where they would be exhibited to show the West the importance and beauty of Khmer art. The Guimet and the National Museum made a deal to exchange the head for the recently excavated pedestal of a 10th century that matches a statue in the Guimet collection. Both pieces are on permanent loan, so there’s no official change in legal ownership.

On January 21st, conservators reattached the head of Harihara to the body at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The ceremony was attended by 200 people, including government and museum officials, diplomats, foreign dignitaries.

“After it was separated 130 years ago, we are welcoming the reunification of the head and the torso of Harihara,” Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said at the ceremony. “According to our Khmer culture, the reunion is symbolic of prosperity.”

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New technology finds York gladiators’ homelands

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

The latest and greatest DNA technology has revealed the origins of some of the 80 men buried in a Roman-era cemetery in York. The burials have intrigued and mystified archaeologists since they were first discovered under the garden of an 18th century mansion on Driffield Terrace in 2004. Of the 80 individuals, 48 of them, 60% of the total and 79% of the 61 skeletons with surviving crania and cervical vertebrae, had been decapitated from behind with a very sharp, very fine blade. Their heads were buried with them but not in anatomically correct or even consistent positions. Skulls were placed on the chest, between the legs and at their feet.

Decapitated remains have been found in Roman cemeteries before, but very few. One study tallied 98 decapitations making up 6% of the inhumation burials in cemeteries where decapitations were found. The York burials were so unique because of the unprecedented high proportion of decapitated individuals in the cemetery, four times higher than the proportion found in any other Romano-British cemetery. The second highest number of decapitations is 15 out of 94 burials (16%) unearthed from a Roman cemetery in Cassington, Oxfordshire.

Another unique feature of the Driffield Terrace burials is that they were all men. Decapitated individuals found in all the other Roman burial grounds had the usual demographic spread you’d expect of an attritional cemetery. There were men, women, young, old, adult, child. The York burials were also all under the age of 45 and taller than average. Five of them had other wounds inflicted by a blade besides the cuts to the neck, jaw, clavicle and scapula associated with decapitation. Two were stabbed in the abdomen; one was cut through the thigh muscles to the femur; two were parrying fractures to the forearm and hand, likely incurred trying to deflect a blow to the head. Sixteen individuals had perimortem blunt force trauma to the cranium. Evidence of healed trauma was rife, including cranial, facial, dental and metacarpal fractures that were likely incurred by violence. One skeleton’s pelvis showed signs of what may have been bite marks from a lion or bear.

Osteological evidence indicates they were trained to fight from a young age. Their right arms were consistently longer than their left, which means they’d been using weapons regularly since before they’d finished growing. Most them also showed signs of inadequate nutrition in childhood which they overcame to become healthy, strapping young men.

The single-sex grouping, young age, height and extensive evidence of violence indicated these were fighting men, but just what kind was unclear. The cemetery was southwest of the city walls of Roman Eboracum along the main road to Tadcaster just across the river from the legionary fortress. Legionaries had an age limit and height requirement. Gladiators or criminals sentenced to death were the other possibilities.

The placement of the cemetery atop a promontory on the main road makes it unlikely that they were criminals or outcasts. It’s too sweet a spot to leave it to executed criminals. The date of the burials — from the 2nd to the 4th century A.D. — was an important time for York. Roman emperor Septimius Severus actually lived in Eboracum off and on during the early 3rd century when it was the capital of the Britannia.

To determine the place of original of the individuals, a team from Trinity College Dublin used cutting-edge genomic analysis. DNA was extracted from the dense inner ear bones of seven of the Driffield Terrace burials and subjected to whole genome analysis.

The nearest modern descendants of the Roman British men sampled live not in Yorkshire, but in Wales. A man from a Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the village of Norton, Teesside, has genes more closely aligned to modern East Anglia and Dutch individuals and highlights the impact of later migrations upon the genetic makeup of the earlier Roman British inhabitants.

However, one of the decapitated Romans had a very different story, of Middle Eastern origin he grew up in the region of modern day Palestine, Jordan or Syria before migrating to this region and meeting his death in York.

This is the first genomic analysis of ancient Britons, but given the precision of the results it’s certainly not the last.

Rui Martiniano who undertook the analysis said: “This is the first refined genomic evidence for far-reaching ancient mobility and also the first snapshot of British genomes in the early centuries AD, indicating continuity with an Iron Age sample before the migrations of the Anglo-Saxon period.”

You can read the full genomic study in this month’s Nature Communications.

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