Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Neanderthals built stalagmite circles 175,000 years ago

Friday, May 27th, 2016

The entrance to the Bruniquel Cave in southwest France collapsed in prehistoric times, sealing off the cave from the Pleistocene until determined local speleologists dug their way through in 1990. Inside the cave just 336 meters (1102 feet) from the entrance, they found two circular structures made of whole and broken stalagmites. Archaeologists carefully documented the site, but were unable to date it. Accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating on a burnt animal bone found nearby returned a date of older than 47,600 years ago, which pushes the outer limit of C-14 dating’s 50,000-year range. The date dangled the intriguing possibility that the stalagmite circles had been built by Neanderthals, the only people in Europe from 400,000 to 40,000 years ago when anatomically modern humans moved in and rapidly took over.

Archaeological exploration of the site ended abruptly when the lead archaeologist F. Rouzaud died prematurely in 1999, and the difficult access to the cave kept other archaeologists from picking up where he left off. In 2013, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences palaeoclimatologist Sophie Verheyden, a speleologist who has a vacation home in the area, put together a team of experts to examine the annular stalagmites structures.

Verheyden’s team found two circular structures, the larger one 6.7 × 4.5 meters (22 x 15 feet), the smaller one 2.2 × 2.1 meters (7.2 x 6.9 feet). In the center of the larger circle are two stacks of stalagmites with two more accumulation structures outside of it. In total, about 400 stalagmite pieces were used in these structures, less than 5% of them whole. Half of them are from the middle section of the stalagmites. The ones used in the large circle have a mean length of 34.4 centimeters (13.5 inches); the ones in the smaller circle have a mean length of 29.5 cm (11.6 inches).

The annular geometry is too regular to be the product of random natural breakage, and relatively regular sizes of the stalagmites, larger in the larger circle and smaller in the smaller circle, are further evidence that this is deliberate construction. The possibility that they might have been cave bear nests is eliminated by the size and inner organization of the structures. Archaeologists also found prints left where some of the stalagmites were wrenched off the cave floor and traces of fire on all six structures, 57 reddened pieces and 66 blackened ones.

Uranium-series dating of stalagmite samples and the calcite regrowth covering the structures returned dates of 175,200 to 177,100 thousand years. The dates of all the samples fell into this range. The stalagmite structures are therefore among the oldest firmly dated human constructions, and Neanderthals were the only humans in Europe at that time.

The earliest surviving evidence of constructions by anatomically modern humans — collapsed circular structures made from mammoth bones or dear antlers — date to around 20,000 years ago. Indications of earlier Neanderthal building are limited to a few postholes and remnants of dry stone walls, but they cannot be conclusively attributed to Neanderthals or conclusively dated. The great archaeological gifts of the Bruniquel Cave, therefore, are the complexity and survival of the stalagmite circles and the repeatable, reliable direct dating.

This momentous find redefines our understanding of Neanderthal culture and abilities. From the research published in Nature, which you can read in its entirety here (pdf):

The attribution of the Bruniquel constructions to early Neanderthals is unprecedented in two ways. First, it reveals the appropriation of a deep karst space (including lighting) by a pre-modern human species. Second, it concerns elaborate constructions that have never been reported before, made with hundreds of partially calibrated, broken stalagmites (speleofacts) that appear to have been deliberately moved and placed in their current locations, along with the presence of several intentionally heated zones. Our results therefore suggest that the Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought for this hominid species.

There’s a compilation of photographs and 3D animated flyover of the site in the video on this page. Alas, I cannot embed it because of cursed autoplay, but it’s well worth viewing.

Rare ancient nilometer found in Nile Delta

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Workers digging a water pump station in the ancient city of Thmuis discovered an ancient nilometer, a structure used to determine the water level of the Nile River. A team of American and Egyptian archaeologists from the University of Hawaii and the Alexandria Center for Hellenistic Studies have excavated the find and believe it dates to the 3rd century B.C. when Thmuis was an important city under the Ptolemies. Fewer than two dozen ancient nilometers have been found in Egypt, making this a very rare find.

Thmuis, near the present-day city of El-Mansoura in Lower Egypt’s Nile Delta, flourished as port city from the 4th to 1st century B.C. It became the regional capital of the nome of Kha when the course of the Nile shifted from Mendes, a famous city in antiquity which had briefly been the capital of Egypt in the early 4th century B.C. under the reign of 29th Dynasty Pharaoh Nepherites. Located just half a kilometer north of Thmuis, in the 4th and 3rd centuries Mendes began to lose population as its branch of the Nile silted over and the river that was the lifeblood of Egypt moved to Thmuis. The people followed the Nile, abandoning the ancient capital for the new one.

Situated on an eastern branch of the Nile next to Daqahliyyah Lake bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, Thmuis became an important hub of agriculture, trade and religion in the region. In the Roman era, it was of significant military importance as well. The Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus reported in The Wars of the Jews that Titus, son of the new emperor Vespasian, brought his legions to Thmuis on a fleet of long ships. He moored the ships there and marched across the Sinai Peninsula to Cesarea before laying siege to Jerusalem in early 70 A.D. during the First Jewish–Roman War.

In December of 2012, an archaeological team sponsored by the National Geographic Society began excavating an area of Thmuis where monumental architectural features, possibly the remains of a temple built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 283-246 B.C.) for his sister-wife Arsinoë II, had been discovered a few years earlier. The temple complex was on the banks of the Nile. Archaeologists believe the nilometer was part of this temple. Its discovery confirms that the Nile channel ran along the western side of Thmuis.

Priests used the nilometer to predict the extent of the annual flooding of the Nile.

Made from large limestone blocks, the nilometer was a circular well roughly eight feet (2.4 meters) in diameter with a staircase leading down into its interior. Either a channel would have connected the well to the river, or it would have simply measured the water table as a proxy for the strength of the river. Seven cubits — roughly 10 feet (3.04 meters) — was the optimum height for prosperity.

“During the time of the pharaohs, the nilometer was used to compute the levy of taxes, and this was also likely the case during the Hellenistic period,” says Robert Littman, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii. “If the water level indicated there would be a strong harvest, taxes would be higher.”

Because a weak flood meant there would be famine and an excessive one destroyed homes and drowned fields, predicting how far the waters would overflow was a matter of life and death. Thmuis residents brought offerings to the temple in the hope of winning the favor of the Nile River god. There’s a list of Greek names and associated numbers on one of the limestone blocks. Archaeologists believe they were sponsors who donated money for the construction of the nilometer.

It was in use for about 1,000 years before the course of the Nile shifted again, leaving Thmuis to suffer the depopulation that Mendes had suffered before it. Today it’s a small village, but the Nile’s ancient presence is still felt in the high water table, high enough to make it worthwhile to dig the well that unearthed the nilometer.

Roman fort built after Boudiccan revolt found in London

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

A Roman fort built in London in the aftermath of the Boudiccan uprising is shedding new light on this little-known period in the development of the capital. The site, on the edge of the early town 750 feet or so northeast of Roman-era London Bridge, was excavated by experts from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) between 1997 and 2003. They found a fort built over the ruins of commercial and residential structures destroyed in the revolt of 60/61 A.D.

Londinium was still a smaller city at the time of the uprising. It was founded after the Roman conquest of 43 A.D. so it was less than 20 years old and wasn’t an official colony yet when it fell to Boudicca. Thanks to the Thames and its direct line to maritime trade, Londinium was a growing concern with enough wealth to make it an appealing target for the Iceni. When he realized they were coming, the governor of Britannia, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, decided his scant troops could not successfully defend the city so it was better to sacrifice London and live to fight another day. He left, taking his army with him and the residents to the not-so-tender mercies of Boudicca. From Tacitus’ Annals 14:33:

Those who were chained to the spot by the weakness of their sex, or the infirmity of age, or the attractions of the place, were cut off by the enemy. Like ruin fell on the town of Verulamium, for the barbarians, who delighted in plunder and were indifferent to all else, passed by the fortresses with military garrisons, and attacked whatever offered most wealth to the spoiler, and was unsafe for defence. About seventy thousand citizens and allies, it appeared, fell in the places which I have mentioned. For it was not on making prisoners and selling them, or on any of the barter of war, that the enemy was bent, but on slaughter, on the gibbet, the fire and the cross, like men soon about to pay the penalty, and meanwhile snatching at instant vengeance.

Londinium was devastated. It was still in ruins in around 63 A.D. when the fort was built. It’s likely the fort’s aim wasn’t solely defense, but also to serve as a base for reconstruction efforts. From its size, it would have held between 500 and 800 soldiers.

Our excavations at Plantation Place for British Land on Fenchurch Street in the City of London exposed a section of a rectangular fort that covered 3.7 acres. The timber and earthwork fort had 3 metre high banks reinforced with interlacing timbers and faced with turves and a timber wall. Running atop the bank was a ‘fighting platform’ fronted by a colossal palisade, with towers positioned at the corners of the gateways. This formidable structure was enclosed by double ditches, 1.9 and 3m deep, forming an impressive obstacle for would be attackers.

Archaeologists unearthed a number of military artifacts from the site — plate armor, spears, shields, harness fittings, a partial cavalry helmet — as well as construction tools including a pick axe and hammer. They also found evidence of roads, storage facilities, a granary, a latrine, cookhouse, etc. within the fort precinct. The barracks appear to have been tents, however, not permanent buildings, and the fort was only in active use for a decade. Unlike later forts, this one was a temporary installation meant to help rebuild the city and keep the residents secure.

The fort is of great significant despite its impermanence because it is a strong indication that the Romans had picked Londinium to be the new capital. The previous provincial capital, Camulodunum, aka Colchester, does not appear to have had a similar fort built in the wake of its destruction by Boudicca. London was a practical choice. Unlike Colchester, London had easy access to the sea, ocean-going ships could go directly to the city via the Thames, and the city was new, not founded by potentially troublesome British tribes. Troops stationed at the fort provided much-needed labour and engineering expertise to rebuild roads, docks and buildings.

The Plantation Place fort was dismantled around 85 A.D. and the land it had occupied was built over with new development. Much of that was felled in the raging fire of 145 A.D., after which the area welcomed a new masonry townhouse. A hoard of gold coins was hidden in the basement around 174 A.D.

The full research on the Plantation Place fort has been published in An Early Roman Fort and Urban Development on Londinium’s Eastern Hill, now for sale in the museum shop and available for pre-order on Amazon.

Rome subway build finds Praetorian guard barracks

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Construction of Rome’s third subway line, Metro Line C, has made a sensational discovery: the remains of a 2nd century Praetorian Guard barracks. Thirty feet under Via Ipponio between the Baths of Caracalla and the Basilica of St. John in Lateran in the historic center of Rome, the barracks cover an astonishing 1,753 square meters (18,870 square feet) of surface area (ed note: the AP story says it’s 900 sq meters, but all of the Italian press reports the larger figure so I’m going with their data), and that’s just what’s been exposed thus far. They were built during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), only to be demolished just over a century later during construction of the Aurelian Walls (271-275 A.D.). The demolition was thankfully half-assed, leaving impressive ruins — the walls are up to five feet high — which were then buried.

There are 39 rooms, each four by four meters (13 x 13 feet), that open onto a central hallway. Some of the rooms, likely the officers’ quarters, are richly decorated with mosaic floors and frescoed walls. The bricks in the walls bear the stamp of the imperial kilns from 123 and 136 A.D., which is how the structure was dated. There’s also a mass grave on the site. So far 13 skeletons have been excavated from it and a few artifacts including a bronze coin and a bronze bracelet.

A number of military remains have been discovered in the neighborhood. Under St. John in Lateran is the Castra Nova Equitum Singularium (built under Septimius Severus, ca. 200 A.D.), a couple of blocks northeast under Via Tasso is the Castra Priora Equitum Singularium (Trajan, ca. 100 A.D.), and west of that near the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo is the Castra Peregrina (Augustus, 1st century A.D.).

Work on Metro Line C began in 2007 and has been beset by funding problems, corruption scandals and wonderful but expensive and time-consuming archaeological discoveries. While the subway tunnels themselves have been dug 80 feet below the surface to avoid hitting constant ancient roadblocks, the new stations can’t avoid bumping into thousand of years of history. The barracks site was discovered during construction of the Amba Aradam station and the city authorities tried to keep the news under wraps to avoid having to announce work on the line was suspended yet again.

The newspaper Il Tempo broke the news of the find last Wednesday, publishing a story complete with quotations from a letter about the find written by Francesco Prosperetti, Special Superintendent for the Archaeological Area of Rome. In the letter Prosperetti describes the discovery as exceptional and in such a good state of conservation that it would not be possible to pursue the idea of dismantling it, finishing construction and then rebuilding the structure in its original context. The barracks complex is so large it occupies the entire southern half of the station and extends beyond it. The northern half of the station is also replete with archaeological remains that haven’t been explored so it’s not known at the moment what they are or the impact they’ll have. As for how so large and complete an ancient structure could have been missed by preventative archaeology done on the site before construction began, Prosperetti notes that archaeologists took core samples which pointed to ancient boundaries under a massive modern structure, but they were buried so deep underground it wasn’t possible to explore them in the preliminary stages.

The subway company now has to figure out how to proceed, and however they go about this, it’s likely going to cost time and money. Metro Line C is already the most expensive subway construction project in history. In a press conference Monday, Prosperetti gave assurances that both the great archaeological importance of the find and the Metro budget and deadlines would be respected. The plan is to integrate the ruins into the station, creating the first fully fledged “archaeological station” in Rome, all without extra expense or delays. If that sounds less than entirely believable to you, that’s because it is.

Egyptian coffin holds youngest known mummified fetus

Friday, May 13th, 2016

A tiny ancient Egyptian coffin previously believed to hold mummified organs has been found to contain the youngest known example of a mummified fetus. Mummified fetuses are rare in the archaeological record of ancient Egypt. Two mummified fetuses in coffins were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, but they were at about 25 weeks and 37 weeks gestation. This one is only 16 to 18 weeks gestation.

The coffin was excavated in Giza in 1907 by William Matthew Flinders Petrie’s British School of Archaeology. When the 1906-1907 dig season ended, Petrie distributed the finds to more than 20 institutions in Britain and the United States. The miniature coffin went to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The cedar wood coffin is just 44 centimeters (17 inches) long. It’s a miniature version of a Late Period Egyptian coffin probably dating to between 664 and 525 B.C. The wood has deteriorated over the years, but even through the networks of deep cracks on the exterior and interior of the coffin, the quality of the carving shines. This was an expensive piece.

Inside the coffin is a bundle wrapped in linen bandages and coated in black resin that was poured over it before the lid was put in place. Because the package is so small, curators thought it contained internal organs that were removed during the mummification process. In preparation for the museum’s bicentennial exhibition Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt, curators wanted to find out what exactly was in that bundle. X-rays were inconclusive but there were indications that small skeletal material might be present.

Curators turned to micro CT, scanning the bundle at Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology. Fitzwilliam experts collaborated with radiologist Dr. Tom Turmezei and pediatric radiologist Dr. Owen Arthurs to examine the cross-sectional images produced by the micro CT scans. They concluded that the bundle contained the remains of a very young fetus. The fingers of both hands and toes of both feet are clearly visible, as are the long bones of the legs and arms. The skull and pelvis have collapsed, but the bones that remain allowed researchers to determine the fetus was no more than 18 weeks old. There are no signs in the surviving bones to explain why the fetus was miscarried.

The long bones of the arms are crossed over the chest, which means the tiny fetus was very carefully posed in its tiny coffin. Add to that the careful mummification and elaborate decoration of the coffin, and it’s clear the fetus was of great importance to its bereaved family.

Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation at the Fitzwilliam Museum said, “Using noninvasive modern technology to investigate this extraordinary archaeological find has provided us with striking evidence of how an unborn child might be viewed in ancient Egyptian society. The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception.”

Other ancient societies, the Romans, for example, had no such care for dead babies, nevermind miscarried fetuses.

The miniature cedar coffin is now on display at the Death on the Nile exhibition, alongside some truly exquisite artifacts pertaining to Egyptian beliefs about death. It runs through May 22nd, so the clock is ticking if you want to see the exhibition. I’m including all the wonderful images of artifacts in the show that the Fitzwilliam made available to entice those of you who can make it to Cambridge and give those of us who can’t at least a taste of the marvels on display.



Iron Age chamber used as trash chute by Victorians

Monday, May 9th, 2016

A subterranean chamber recently discovered on Mainland, Orkney, turns out to have been discovered by the Victorians first, and they filled it with rubbish. The entrance to the structure was found by Clive Chaddock on his land near the Harray Manse. A horticulture professor at Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands, Chaddock called his colleagues from UHI’s Archaeology Institute to investigate. Two weekends ago, the Archaeology Institute’s Martin Carruthers and county archaeologist Julie Gibson examined the find.

The structure is an architecturally impressive well or a souterrain, an underground gallery used neither as a tomb nor for religious purposes. Their exact purpose is unknown. They are associated with settlements, so could have been used for food storage or perhaps a place to hide when the going got tough topside. The Orkney Islands have several notable souterrains, among them Castle Bloody, a souterrain mound on the island of Shapinsay with several passageways leading to a central chamber, a multi-chambered one at East Broch in the island of Burray and another chamber near the Harray Manse.

This one has a short entrance gallery with a low ceiling which leads to partially corbelled square chamber. Comparison with similar structures suggests it dates to the Iron Age. The chamber is fully roofed, but in the 19th century it was exposed and used as a trash chute. Its full depth is obscured by a pile of rusted iron kettles, buckets, glass bottles and even imported French mustard jars. Whoever found it didn’t document it, and eventually it was closed back up and forgotten again.

Martin Carruthers spoke to the Archaeology Institute’s excellent blog about the archaeological double-whammy.

The chamber appears to be entirely constructed from coursed masonry with no bed-rock or glacial till apparent as some Iron Age souterrains and wells do. There are no uprights or pillars present inside the chamber, which makes this structure feel like one of the so-called wells more than a classic souterrain or earthhouse. The steep drop-off between the passage and the chamber also encourages the idea that there may well be a steep flight of stairs leading down into the chamber. The chamber might be really quite deep underneath all the Victorian, and perhaps earlier, in-fill.

As you can see from the images there’s so much Victorian material it probably represents quite an academically interesting collection in its own right. We might be tempted to think that later periods are so well-understood and documented that it isn’t worth thinking about this detritus archaeologically, but actually its often the case that the domestic habits of later periods are often overlooked in many mainstream histories and documents. The Victorian rubbish is potentially a neat snap-shot of someone’s (perhaps one of the Manse’s Ministers) domestic waste of that era and may be full of insight about the habits, tastes and practices of a Nineteenth Century Orkney house- with a real social history value. What’s more, it’s also an interesting insight into a recent intervention in an Orcadian souterrain/well that we had no previous knowledge of. So it’s also noteworthy that here we have an example of another prehistoric underground building that was clearly known to locals, for a time, but didn’t make its way on to the official archives, and helps make the point that there are likely to be so many more of these sorts of structures still to be found in Orkney.

The site has been sealed again and will be monitored for the time being. Keep an eye on the Archaeology Orkney blog for future updates (and for its general awesomeness).

New Kingdom mummy found with animal, flower tattoos

Saturday, May 7th, 2016

During the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale’s 2014-2015 dig at Deir el-Medina, archaeologists found a female mummy with extensive tattoos of animals and flowers. The mummy dates to between 1300 and 1070 B.C., which makes her the first mummy from Dynastic Egypt with non-abstract figural tattoos. Her artwork wouldn’t be out of place in a modern tattoo shop. She has lotus blossoms on her hips, cows on her left arm, baboons on her neck and Wadjet eyes, also known as the Eye of Horus, on her neck, shoulders and back.

“Any angle that you look at this woman, you see a pair of divine eyes looking back at you,” says bioarchaeologist Anne Austin of Stanford University in California, who presented the findings last month at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Austin noticed the tattoos while examining mummies for the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, which conducts research at Deir el-Medina, a village once home to the ancient artisans who worked on tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings. Looking at a headless, armless torso dating from 1300 to 1070 BC, Austin noticed markings on the neck. At first, she thought that they had been painted on, but she soon realized that they were tattoos.

Aware of studies like the recent multispectral photographic imaging scan that discovered previously unknown tattoos on Ötzi the Iceman, Austin examined the mummy under infrared lighting with an infrared sensor. She found more than 30 tattoos, several of which were on skin that was too darkened by the mummification process for the ink to be seen with the naked eye. Working with Cédric Gobeil, director of the French mission at Deir el-Medina, Austin photographed and digitally reshaped the tattoos to see what they looked like on living flesh, before the skin was shrunk and shriveled by mummification.

All of the tattoos are religious symbols. Cows represent the goddess Hathor; the lotus was a symbol of rebirth associated with Osiris; baboons represent Thoth. Wadjet of eye fame was one of the earliest Egyptian deities, later split into various gods including Hathor who, in one version of the mythology, restored Horus’ left eye after Set tore it out. It was a protective symbol against evil. It’s possible that the woman was a priestess, singer and/or musician in the service of Hathor and that the tattoos on the throat and arms were meant to strengthen her performance and connect her to the gods.

Judging from the degree of fading, the tattoos appear to have been made at different times. This may be an indicator of increasing status in her religious community; the greater the seniority, the more tattoos. Alternatively, they have been her way of expressing her religious fervor, and given how painful the application must have been, it would have demonstrated very great dedication indeed.

There are no known written records from ancient Egypt that mention tattooing, but there is iconographic evidence in wall paintings and figurines. There’s a faience bowl in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden from around the New Kingdom (1400-1300 B.C.) that depicts a lute player with a pictogram of the god Bes on her thigh and a v-shaped dot grouping on her chest. The Louvre has a piece from the late Middle Kingdom (ca. 2033–1710 B.C.), a faience figurine of a nude woman wearing a belt of cowry shells, her body adorned with groups of dots that may or may not represent tattoos, but are very similar to the dots and dash groupings found on mummies of the period. These kinds of figurines have traditionally been known as Brides of the Dead (this is a misnomer as some were placed in the tombs of women and others weren’t found in tombs at all) and are believed to be guarantors of sexual success and fertility in the next life.

The earliest Egyptian mummies with identifiable tattoos have the same kind of patterns seen on the Brides. The first examples were unearthed in the late 19th century, most famously at Deir el-Bahari in 1891. French archaeologist Eugène Grébaut discovered the mummy of a woman named Amunet who was a priestess of Hathor in the 11th Dynasty (ca. 2134-1991 B.C.). Her body was tattooed with diamond-shaped patterns of dots on her right thigh, matrices of dots under her sternum and above her navel, and a multiple rows of dots forming an elliptical pattern that covered her abdomen from leg to leg. This tattoo is particularly relevant to fertility because during pregnancy it would have stretched and grown to give the pregnant belly the appearance of being wrapped in a net, likely a protective symbol.

In the New Kingdom, pictographs of the gods were added to the abstract dot and dash patterns. Pictographs of the war goddess Neith have been found on mummies of women dating to around 1300 B.C. Tattoos of Bes, protector of mothers, children and the household, have been found on the thighs of dancers and musicians. Bes danced, sang and made noise to scare away evil spirits, so it’s a reasonable connection. These mummies date to the 4th century B.C. and were the oldest known non-abstract tattoos in Egypt before the recent discovery of the figural tattoos on the mummy from Deir el-Medina.

That’s one of the reasons the find is so exciting. Another is that the archaeological record of Egyptian tattoos is patchy at best. Tattoos can be very hard to spot on darkened and wizened mummified flesh, or they can be lost to decay. Besides, we’re no longer in the giddy, reckless days of late 19th century, early 20th century Egyptology when archaeologists loved to unwrap mummies, often in front of crowds. Nowadays mummies are kept wrapped as a matter of course. Technology like CT scanning allow examination in great detail without the invasive and destructive interventions of yesteryear. It can’t read tattoos on the surface of the skin, however, so keeping mummies wrapped makes documenting tattoos impossible.

With the great success of infrared imaging on the Deir el-Medina mummy, perhaps the large gaps in the record can be at least partially filled by examining mummies that were unwrapped back when that was trendy, or whose wrappings have been lost. All of the Egyptian mummies with tattoos discovered thus far have been female. Was the art form the exclusive province of women, or have we just not found the tattooed men yet? There is artwork that suggests men had tattoos too. A thorough IR analysis of the mummy record may at long last answer the question.

Ancient inscription with horse racing rules found in Turkey

Friday, May 6th, 2016

A 2000-year-old tablet inscribed with the rules for horse racing has been discovered in the Beyşehir district of Konya Province, central Anatolia, Turkey. According to Selçuk University history professor Dr. Hasan Bahar, this is the only tablet ever found that details rules of the sport that had a massive following in the Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras. Other sources mention horse racing, but don’t get into the rules.

“There are horseracing rules on the tablet. It says that if a horse comes in first place in a race it cannot participate in other races, while another horse of the winning horse’s owner also cannot enter another race. In this way, others were given a chance to win. This was a beautiful rule, showing that unlike races in the modern world, races back then were based on gentlemanly conduct,” Bahar also said.

That may be overstating the case somewhat. Ancient equestrian sports had many of the same features of modern ones — multiple heats and races in a day, careful breeding of horses, publically published bloodlines, on and off-track betting — including scandals like doping and contractual disputes. Both chariot and mounted horse racing were often brutal, resulting in injury and death to horses and drivers/jockeys. Then fandom was very far from gentlemanly as well. Supporters of the four factiones of the chariot race (Reds, Blues, Whites, and Greens) regularly faced off against each other in violent riots. The Nika Riots of 532 A.D. lasted a week, killed tens of thousands and burned half of Constantinople to the ground.

The tablet is part of a monument known as “Horse Rock” to the locals after the relief of a horse carved into the rockface. It was a funerary monument dedicated to Lukuyanus, a beloved jockey who was likely buried in the “grave room”, a small chamber next to the horse relief with a columned entrance. The grave room is devoid of remains now so we don’t know much about Lukuyanus other than what’s on the inscription. It opens: “Lukuyanus The Warrior, Died Before Getting Married. He is Our Hero.”

Since he died before marriage, he was likely a young man when he met his end, but he lived long enough and had enough success on the track to earn him dedicated fans who built him such a handsome and on-topic final resting place. Fan-funded funerary monuments for sports heroes have proved rich sources of historical information before, thanks to their elaborate inscriptions of victory statistics and laments about referee error leading to death.

The monument is near the site of an ancient hippodrome in mountains that were sacred to the Hittites. The Romans may even have built a hippodrome on this spot to bless and be blessed by the Hittites’ holy hills.


Ruins of ancient air conditioning found in Kuwait

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an ancient air conditioning system in a 7th-8th century structure on Failaka, a Kuwaiti island in the Persian Gulf. Researchers from the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) and Kuwait’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters excavating the Nestorian Christian village of Al-Qusur discovered the foundations of a stone tower with a complex system of canals inside.

“According to a preliminary analysis, it’s a unique so-called windcatch-tower, utilising an ingenious interior cooling system based on the flow of air, caught by openings in the tower superstructure,” [SAV Archaeological Institute director Matej Ruttkay] claimed.

Windcatchers work by evaporative cooling. Heat converts water to vapour which takes heat with it as it evaporates, just like sweat does for the body. The technology is commonly associated with traditional Persian desert architecture used all over the Middle East today, but there are versions of windcatchers going back to the 19th Dynasty of Pharaonic Egypt (ca. 1300 B.C.). Paintings on Egyptian tomb walls depict roof ventilators that pulled out warm air by suction, but that system is insufficient for the greater heat of the Persian Gulf.

The Failaka tower enhanced the cooling power of the windcatcher by passing the air over the below-ground water canals into the living spaces of the palace, lowering the temperature of the air dramatically. Modern versions of this system have been clocked cooling the interior of a home to 25°C (77°F) when the external air is 40°C (104°F). It’s a sophisticated approach, impressive for the time and location, and as far as the archaeologists who found it know, is the oldest of its kind ever discovered.

Failaka was first settled around 2000 B.C. by Mesopotamians from Ur who ran a trading concern from the island. By 1800 B.C., the Mesopotamians had either left or been escorted off the island by the Dilmun civilization, which at the height of its power encompassed modern-day Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and coastal Saudi Arabia. The Dilmunites were maritime merchants who controlled trade in the Persian Gulf. Strategically located at the entrance to Kuwait Bay with an easily defended coastline and native sources of water, Failaka was an important hub of their network. They built extensively on the island, constructing a large temple and nearby palace over the ruins of the old Mesopotamian structures. The construction was imposing. The temple was 60 feet square supported by massive limestone columns made of blocks that had to be imported from the mainland, evidence of how prosperous the Dilmunites were, how significant the Failaka settlement was to them and how big and strong their ships were to make such imports possible.

In the 7th century B.C., Mesopotamians under Nebuchadnezzar II returned to Failaka and remained there until the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire after the death of the last king, Nabonidus. Then the Greeks took a turn. Alexander the Great and his successors controlled the island from the 4th to the 1st century B.C.

A Nestorian Christian community settled the island starting in the 5th century. The village of Al-Qusur was in the fertile center of Failaka. Today bounded by marshland, when the Nestorians lived there it was fertile agricultural land with tidy irrigation systems and easy access to the sea. Two churches have been found dating to the 5th and 6th centuries, along with a number of modest courtyard homes and farmsteads. The peak of Failaka’s Nestorian era was the 7th and 8th century. The settlement was abandoned in the 9th century.

The Kuwaiti-Slovak Archaeological Mission has been exploring Failaka since 2004. This season’s aim was to use field excavation, geophysical surveys, aerial photography and 3D modelling to discover the largest structure in Al-Qusur. They were successful beyond their wildest dreams, finding a palatial building dating the 7th-8th century A.D. that was previously unknown. Its architecture of stone masonry foundations topped with mud brick walls is relatively well preserved and its dimensions far eclipse those of the more than 140 settlement structures that have been found at Al-Qusur since it was first excavated in the 1970s. Also it had air conditioning.

Artifacts found in the palace include ceramic and glass vessels, stucco and tile stamps with Christian symbols and Byzantine coins. The latter helped narrow down the date of the find.

Amphorae with 1,300 lbs of Roman coins found in Spain

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

On Wednesday, April 27th, workers digging a trench in Olivar del Zaudín Park in Tomares, a suburb of Seville, Spain, discovered a cache of clay jars nestled three feet under the surface. They alerted the Civil Guard who found there were 19 Roman-era amphorae crammed full of bronze coins from the late 3rd and early 4th century A.D. The number of coins has yet to be determined, but the total weight of them is a staggering 600 kilos (1,300 pounds).

The amphorae and coins were transported to the Archaeological Museum of Seville where conservators have begun to clean, stabilize, identify and count them. Museum director Ana Navarro is not yet able to estimate the total number of coins in the collection. There are tens of thousands of them, that much is clear from the weight. Initial examination has found the coins were minted during the reigns of the emperors Maximian (r. 286-305) and Constantine (r. 306-337) and appear to be in brilliant uncirculated condition, with no signs of wear whatsoever. They are made of bronze but some of them show signs of having been silvered, ie, coated with a thin layer of silver totalling maybe four or five percent of the coin weight.

The amphorae are special too. Out of the 19 amphorae, nine of them were perfectly intact with their coins untouched inside. The other ten were damaged by the excavator at the time of discovery (a cloud with a silver lining because it gives archaeologists the opportunity to see how the coins were packed in the vessels). They are not of the kind used to transport the wine, fermented fish intestine sauce and grains that Romans were so fond of. They’re smaller than standard merchant amphorae and may have been designed specifically to carry cash. The amphorae were placed vertically in packed earth up to their shoulders and then covered by bricks and pieces of broken ceramic. It’s not clear if they were deliberately hidden underground due to social unrest, violence or danger, or if this was a deposit space inside a fort or military structure of some kind.

The find is unique in Spain and likely the rest of the Roman world. Navarro and her team contacted researchers in Britain, France and Italy and they all agreed that they have never seen so large and homogeneous an accumulation of coins from the late Roman empire. Because of their homogeneity, tight date range and amphorae, the coins were not a private treasure. Navarro speculates that they could have been pay for the army or civil servants, or perhaps destined for the imperial tax coffers. Less than a tenth of the coins have been examined at this point, so it’s too early to draw any conclusions.

The region in which they where they were found was a powerful economic center in the Roman Spain province. The ancient city of Italica, founded in 206 B.C. by Publius Cornelius Scipio, future victor over Hannibal in the Second Punic War, is just next door. Emperors Trajan and Hadrian were born there. It’s a good thing the coins weren’t kept in the big city, however, as after its decline the nearby city of Seville, Hispalis in Roman times, used Italica as a quarry. As late as the 18th century Seville was still feasting on the bones of its ancient neighbor. Seville demolished the walls of Italica’s amphitheater in 1740 and used the stone to build a dam and demolished the old Republican city in 1796 to build a road with its stone. It wasn’t protected until 1810 under Napoleon.

The Olivar del Zaudín Park’s land was two farmsteads in the Middle Ages, nothing worth messing with when there was a far more obvious ancient target drawing focus. They were eventually combined and made into an olive orchard. Olive trees still dot the landscape today. Just a few miles west of Seville, the 45-hectare site has never been developed and, thanks to its extensive flora and natural lagoon system with four lakes, is an ecological preserve for a plethora of nesting and migratory birds, insects, butterflies, reptiles, fish and amphibians.

The same fortunate happenstance that over the millennia preserved the site for nature also preserved 19 amphorae of coins. The crew was working on a canal project as part of a regeneration plan to restore the lagoons, sustain the olive trees and eventually build a bird observatory, work which has now been suspended as a consequence of the momentous find. An emergency excavation will take place before work resumes.

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