Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

A new look at an ancient Egyptian prosthetic toe

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017

Toe prosthesis of a female burial from the Theban tomb TT95, early first millennium BC. Egyptian Museum Cairo, JE100016a. Photo by Matjaž Kacicnik, University of Basel, LHTT. One of the oldest prostheses ever found has been reexamined by experts at the University of Basel in Switzerland using state of the art technology and it is an even finer piece of medical equipment than previously realized. One of the oldest prosthetic devices known (its precise age is unclear and there’s some overlap with the date range of the cartonnage Greville Chester toe), the Cairo toe is the oldest prosthetic discovered in situ, albeit disturbed from its original placement.

The wooden prosthetic toe was discovered in 2000 in a burial chamber in the necropolis of Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna near Luxor. It was one of multiple burials found in tomb TT95, one of five rock-cut tombs built into the eastward facing hillside of Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna. The tomb complex was built in the 15th century B.C. by order of Mery, High Priest of Amun under Amenhotep II (r. 1427–1401 B.C.), to hold the remains of his immediate family. Construction of the elaborate funerary chapel appears to have been interrupted by a cave-in, but the complex continued to be used for burials through the Late Period (4th century B.C.) and was adapted for use as housing in the Late Roman era. People lived in the complex off and on well into the 20th century.

A shaft tomb in the entrance hall of TT95 was one of those later internments. It dates to the Third Intermediate Period (1069 B.C.- 664 B.C.) and had been extensive looted over the centuries. The mummified remains of a 50-to 60-year-old woman named Tabaketenmut, the daughter of a high priest who lived between 950 and 710 B.C., were found disarticulated in the fill of the shaft. The front half of the right foot was discovered intact with a wooden toe prosthesis connected to a well-healed amputation site with leather laces.

Egyptians made artificial parts for burial purposes, but this toe showed signs of having been of practical use during the woman’s lifetime. The prosthetic’s design was mechanically advanced and made for movement, not a cosmetic piece meant to adorn a dead body. It was made of three pieces of wood carved to precisely conform to the shape of the foot. The wood parts had holes drilled along the boundaries and leather string threaded through them and around the side of the foot, keeping the prosthetic securely attached while allowing articulated movement. It also has signs of wear that suggests its long-term use.

The toe is part of the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Last fall, Egyptologists from the University of Basel started a new project to re-examine and thoroughly document all the remains and objects discovered in the TT95 tomb complex. The toe and the partial foot to which it was attached were part of this study.

The international team investigated the one-of-a-kind prosthesis using modern microscopy, X-ray technology, and computer tomography. They were able to show that the wooden toe was refitted several times to the foot of its owner, a priest’s daughter. The researchers also newly classified the used materials and identified the method with which the highly developed prosthesis was produced and utilized. Experts from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo – where the prosthetic device was brought to after it had been found – and the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich were also involved in this study.

The artificial toe from the early first millennium BC testifies to the skills of an artisan who was very familiar with the human physiognomy. The technical know-how can be seen particularly well in the mobility of the prosthetic extension and the robust structure of the belt strap. The fact that the prosthesis was made in such a laborious and meticulous manner indicates that the owner valued a natural look, aesthetics and wearing comfort and that she was able to count on highly qualified specialists to provide this.

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Baby dinobird found trapped in amber

Saturday, June 17th, 2017


Researchers have discovered the remains of a baby avian dinosaur in a 99-million-year-old piece of Burmese amber. This is the most complete bird ever found trapped in amber, and it’s the most complete fossil of any kind found in Burmese amber. Its resinous coffin has preserved almost all of the skull and neck, a large section of one wing, one leg with perfect little claws and the soft tissues of the tail. Because so much of the bird has survived — almost half of it — researchers were able to identify it from its proportions and morphological features as a fledgling enantiornithes.

Enantiornitheans were a clade of toothed avialan dinosaurs that went extinct about 65 million years ago, at the tail end of the Late Cretaceous period and dawn of the Paleogene, one of the 75% of terrestrial organisms obliterated in the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Fossils from 80 different species of enantiornitheans have been identified in every continent except Antarctica. Their diversity and wide geographical distribution indicates that at least of them were able to fly across oceans on their own wing power, the first bird-like animals to develop that ability.

Juvenile enantiornithes remains have been found in Burmese amber before, but they were just individual wings. Even from such small pieces, scientists were able to determine that enantiornitheans’ feathers shared the features of modern bird feathers, unlike other than flying dinosaurs like Archaeopteryx. This exceptional specimen provides researchers access to biology they’ve never seen before. The amount of surviving soft tissue gives them the opportunity to examine the opening of the ear, the eyelid and the scales.

In this specimen, scientists observed that while the baby enantiornithine already possessed a full set of flight feathers on its wings, the rest of the plumage was sparse and more similar to the theropod dinosaur feathers, which lack a well-defined central shaft, or rachis.

The presence of flight feathers on such a young bird is reinforcing the idea that enantiornithes hatched with the ability to fly, making them less dependent on parental care than most modern birds.

This independence came at a cost, however. The researchers point out that a slow growth rate made these ancient birds more vulnerable for a longer amount of time, as evidenced by the high number of juvenile enantiornithes found in the fossil record. (No juvenile fossil remains from any other bird lineage are known from the Cretaceous).

The amber chunk (3.4 x 1.2 x 2.2 inches) containing this exceptional specimen of enantiornithes was mined at the Angbamo site in the Hukawng Valley of northern Myanmar, an incredibly rich source of amber deposits from the Cretaceous period (145.5 to 65.5 million years ago). Amber mined in Myanmar is believed to contain the greatest amount and diversity of Cretaceous animal and plant specimens. The large size and clarity of Burmese amber make the trapped remains invaluable sources for scientific study.

When the miners came across the enantiornithes preserved in amber, they thought it was some sort of weird lizard foot because of the prominent clawed hindfoot. Guang Chen, director of the Hupoge Amber Museum in Tengchong City, China, heard about the “lizard claw” in 2014 and acquired the sample. Chen alerted Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences, whose team had studied a previous find of a therapod tail trapped in Burmese amber, to the specimen. Xing and her colleagues identified it as the hindlimb of an enantiornithes, not an odd lizard claw.

Technology then helped reveal there was so much more to this little guy than just his foot.

“[I thought we had] just a pair of feet and some feathers before it underwent CT imaging. It was a big, big, big surprise after that,” says Xing.

“The surprise continued when we started examining the distribution of feathers and realized that there were translucent sheets of skin that connected many of the body regions appearing in the CT scan data,” adds team co-leader Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

The amber specimen, named Belone after the Burmese word for the Oriental skylark which is amber in color, is now on display at the Hupoge Amber Museum. Between June 24th and the end of July, it will be on display at the Shanghai Museum of Natural History.

Lida Xing and her team have published the first paper on the specimen in the journal Gondwana Research. You can read it free of charge here.

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New fossils push back origin of modern humans 100,000 years

Thursday, June 8th, 2017


New fossils of Homo sapiens discovered at the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco are the oldest remains of modern humans ever found, pushing back our origins 100,000 years. An international team of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists led by Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer of the National Institute for Archaeology and Heritage in Morocco unearthed fossilized Homo sapiens bones and flint blades at Jebel Irhoud, a site that has been known for its Middle Stone Age remains and artifacts since the first fragments were discovered by miners in 1961. The team discovered pieces of the skulls, teeth and the long bones of at least five people.

Dating previous Jebel Irhoud finds has been problematic, because they were not professionally excavated and dating techniques were crude and approximate. The discovery of fossils in situ, morphologically identifiable as Homo sapiens, and worked flint tools in the same sedimentary layer allowed the researchers to absolutely date the finds since all the people died around the same time as the tools were discarded. The flints had been burned, probably by cooking fires built above them. To get an exact date, researchers used the thermoluminescence technique on the flints which revealed they were burned approximately 300,000 years ago.

“Well dated sites of this age are exceptionally rare in Africa, but we were fortunate that so many of the Jebel Irhoud flint artefacts had been heated in the past,” says geochronology expert Daniel Richter of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig (Germany), now with Freiberg Instruments GmbH. Richter explains: “This allowed us to apply thermoluminescence dating methods on the flint artefacts and establish a consistent chronology for the new hominin fossils and the layers above them.” In addition, the team was able to recalculate a direct age of the Jebel Irhoud 3 mandible found in the 1960s. This mandible had been previously dated to 160 thousand years ago by a special electron spin resonance dating method. Using new measures of the radioactivity of the Jebel Irhoud sediments and as a result of methodological improvements in the method, this fossil’s newly calculated age is in agreement with the thermoluminescence ages and much older than previously realised. “We employed state of the art dating methods and adopted the most conservative approaches to accurately determine the age of Irhoud”, adds Richter.

The crania of modern humans living today are characterized by a combination of features that distinguish us from our fossil relatives and ancestors: a small and gracile face, and globular braincase. The fossils from Jebel Irhoud display a modern-looking face and teeth, and a large but more archaic-looking braincase. Hublin and his team used state-of-the-art micro computed tomographic scans and statistical shape analysis based on hundreds of 3D measurements to show that the facial shape of the Jebel Irhoud fossils is almost indistinguishable from that of modern humans living today. In contrast to their modern facial morphology, however, the Jebel Irhoud crania retain a rather elongated archaic shape of the braincase. “The inner shape of the braincase reflects the shape of the brain,” explains palaeoanthropologist Philipp Gunz from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. “Our findings suggest that modern human facial morphology was established early on in the history of our species, and that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the Homo sapiens lineage,” says Philipp Gunz.

Before this discovery, the oldest securely dated Homo sapiens fossils were 195,000 years old and were discovered at the site of Omo Kibish in Ethiopia. Because the fossil record this far back is sparse and the few finds that have been made were centered in Ethiopia, researchers thought Homo sapiens may have evolved in East Africa, dubbed the cradle of mankind, and spread out over the continent from there. The Moroccan fossils are evidence that modern humans evolved elsewhere on the African continent as well, not just in Ethiopia and environs.

A wealth of animal bones were also discovered that bore evidence of having been hunted. Gazelle bones were the most numerous, but these early Homo sapiens supped on a remarkable variety of species including wildebeests, zebras, buffalos, porcupines, hares, tortoises, freshwater mollusks, snakes and a smattering of small game. They were hunted with high quality flint tools — the flint was imported from a site 20 miles south of Jebel Irhoud, an indication of how capable this Homo sapiens group was of securing the best resources over long distances — and signs of butchering are evidence that people broke the long bones open to eat the marrow.

The first study of the Jebel Irhoud finds has been published in the journal Nature. A second publication also in Nature focuses on the dating. They are both behind the subscription firewall, alas, but can be rented for a few bucks.

The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has made two very cool 3D composite reconstructions of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils using CT scans of the finds. You can see in the first video the different shape of the early Homo sapiens brain by the imprint of it in the blue-tinted braincase. The second video starts with a CT scan of a child’s mandible who was about eight years old at time of death. It then delves further into the skull and brain of the 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens.

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3,000-year-old copper mask found in Argentina

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

The Peruvian Andes have long been believed to be the origin of metallurgy in pre-Hispanic America, but an ancient copper mask discovered in what is today northwest Argentina indicates that copper metalwork was developing in the southern Andes even earlier than in the central Andes. The mask was discovered in April of 2005 in the village of La Quebrada in the Cajón Valley. The villagers found it poking out of the ground after the rainy season and notified an archaeological team that had been working in the area since the year before. Human skeletal remains near the mask were also exposed by the rains.

Thanks to the diligence and responsible actions of the villagers, archaeologists were afforded the rare opportunity to excavate the find in its original context. They found that it was a burial, as the human bones might suggest, located on a high point of the landscape near the archaeological site of Bordo Marcial. (Bordo Marcial is an important early agricultural settlement from the Formative period dating to around 1800 – 1900 years before the present.) At least 14 people were buried in this funerary context, adult men and women and children of different ages. There were no intact articulated skeletons; the bones were mixed up together.

The mask was found placed on top of the bones at the northern corner of the burial. The copper had stained several of the bones green, which confirmed the mask and at least some of the remains were buried together. The west side of the tomb is bordered by a stone wall. On the other side of a second stone wall next to it, the remains of a child between eight and 12 years old at time of death were found with a small copper pendant.

Radiocarbon dating found that the green bones from the corner of the burial date to 1377–1010 B.C. The bones of the child date to 1414–1087 B.C., so the group burial and the child burial date to the same time. This was an important transitional period in the region, when the population, still spread out in small groups, shifted from the hunter-gatherers constantly on the move to early farming settlements.

The mask is seven inches high, six inches wide and just one millimeter thick. Holes representing eyes, a nose and a mouth were punched through from the back of a mask and nine small circular holes were made on each side, at the top corners and in the middle, bottom and top margins. Archaeologists believe strings may have been tied through these small holes so the mask could be worn, of they may have connected it to a larger, multi-part artifact the rest of which has decayed over time.

A layer of corrosion covers the mask, which for its own preservation was not removed by the archaeological team. Analysis of the metal found that it was made of pure copper, with no arsenic or tin present that would indicate the intentional creation of bronze. Microscopic examination identified recrystallisation grains and annealing twins, typical features of copper worked by a technique that alternates cold hammering and reheating. The corrosion layer made it impossible to determined anything else about the metallurgic process used to create the mask.

Even though there is extensive archaeological evidence of early metalwork developing in the Peruvian Andes and spreading to other areas of Central and South America from there, there is very little evidence of early copper work in the Central Andean region, only slag associated with copper smelting and a few fragments of laminated copper. These are roughly contemporaneous with the Bordo Macial mask. None of those copper traces are evidence of the use of copper in the creation of an actual artifact. The mask bears that distinction.

This mask is the oldest intentionally shaped copper object recovered from the Andes, with an associated radiocarbon date that suggests that metalworking technology did indeed originate in more than one region of the Andes.

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Remains of lost temple found in Chengdu after 1,000 years

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

Archaeologists have rediscovered the remains an ancient temple in Chengdu, in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province, that has been lost for 1,000 years. The Fugan Temple was built in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 A.D.) and was in use through the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.) when it became a casualty of the period’s wars and political instability. After years of neglect and decline, the temple fell to ruin and whatever was left of it was buried under subsequent construction. Eventually even its location was forgotten.

Buddhist temple construction flourished in the Eastern Jin, with almost 2,000 of them known to have been built during the dynasty. The Fugan Temple reached its zenith of importance during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.) when it was extensively renovated and expanded. Tang-dynasty poet Liu Yuxi (772–842 A.D.) wrote a poem about the renovated temple which described its “heavenly appearance” and its great importance as a religious and cultural center. Tang Dynasty monk Daoxuan (596-667 A.D.), who recorded the biographies of prominent monks, traditions and information about temples and other sacred sites, wrote about how the temple got its name. When Chengdu was suffering from a years-long drought, an official prayer rite was held in front of the temple to pray for rain and lo and behold, the heavens opened and Chengdu was delivered. The temple was named Fugan, meaning “to feel the blessing” in honor of this miracle.

From then on, Fugan Temple was associated with rain and drought relief and became a center for people praying for water. Its decline in importance was gradual, beginning at the end of the Tang Dynasty when constant wars took a toll on the number of pilgrims visiting the temple. Fugan never really recovered from the attendant loss of prosperity, and within a couple of hundred years, it had disappeared off the map. Literally.

Archaeologists have now put it back on the map: specifically, Fugan Temple is under Shiye Street in Chengdu. Thus far they have unearthed the main temple’s foundations, the remains of other buildings in the complex, wells, roads and ditches in an area of 11,000 square meters. This was just a small section of the Fugan Temple at its largest after the Tang renovation and expansion, but it’s more than enough to give archaeologists a unique view into the temple’s architecture.

The team has also discovered a large number of artifacts attesting to the temple’s rich cultural offerings. The most stunning of them are more than 1,000 fragments of stone tablets inscribed in an elegant script with verses from Buddhist scripture including the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and the Sutra of the Whole-Body Relic Treasure Chest Seal Dharani. Even after more than a thousand years of destruction and ruin, there are still traces of gold powder on some of the inscriptions, a hint of the awe and reverence in which these tablets were held.

In addition to the tablets, archaeologists found more than 500 pieces of stone statues, the largest of which are more than 15 feet high. They are representations of various Bodhisattvas and of the Buddha in a wide variety of forms, each of them drawn from scripture, each of them different — zaftig Buddha, slender Buddha, solemn Buddha, peaceful Buddha, Buddha holding a lotus blossom. Archaeologists believe they were carved by different monks as a form of devotion and therefore no two of them are alike.

The dig has also revealed a wealth of remains and artifacts long pre- and post-dating the temple itself.

During the excavation, archaeologists found some 80 ancient tombs scattered near the temple, dating back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600-256 B.C.). In the temple’s surroundings, they have unearthed large amounts of household tools, utensils and building materials dating back to various periods from the Song to the Ming dynasties.

Chengdu became an economic and cultural center in western China during the Sui and Tang dynasties. The temple’s discovery could greatly contribute to the study of the spread of Buddhism in China during that time, said Wang Yi, director of the Chengdu Cultural Relic Research Institute.

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3,500-year-old polychrome reliefs found in Lima temple

Monday, June 5th, 2017

The ancient pre-Inca archaeological site of Garagay in the San Martín de Porres neighborhood of northern Lima was first unearthed in 1959. The stone and mud brick temple’s striking high relief polychrome friezes of mythical beasts appeared stylistically linked to the Chavin culture, and archaeologists believed the Chavin art inspired the Garagay reliefs. The U-shape of the temple complex with a central pyramid 100 feet high and rectangular buildings on the sides was also reminiscent of Chavin structures.

The finds were not documented or photographed at the time, and although they were reburied for their own protection, looters and illegal construction got to them anyway, destroying the spectacular reliefs. Fifteen years would pass before funding was secured to excavate Garagay again. The 1974 excavation discovered more polychrome reliefs, thousands of ceramic artifacts, and rare surviving textiles. It also determined the age of the site. Radiocarbon dating found that the Garagay complex was built around 1800 B.C., was added to and rebuilt multiple times and remained in use until around 800 B.C. That means the early temples and their reliefs predate the Chavin culture, so if there was any influence, it was the other way around.

This time the unearthed temples were not reburied. A fence was erected around the site to keep vandals and looters out, but it didn’t work. Treasure hunters trashed the site looking for gold and easily saleable antiquities. Illegal home construction — some as high as five stories — mushroomed up between the fence and the temple in the mid-1980s. A factory was built in the main square of the complex and workers used the soil and clay from one of the arms of the U to make the bricks for the factory walls.

As if that weren’t bad enough, a high voltage tower erected at the high point of the pyramid in 1963 (the year before laws protecting archaeological sites to prevent this kind of abuse were passed) became a target of the Shining Path terrorists. They tried to blow it up with dynamite three times in the 1980s to cut off the electricity to the city. Because mud bricks are tough as hell and the ancient Peruvians were worth 20 million of those Shining Path brutes, the Garagay complex withstood the explosives, but it took heavy damage.

The site was neglected for four decades, but excavations have finally begun again. The site is currently being excavated by Lima municipal archaeologists who have added information panels to emphasize the complex’s immense archaeological significance as the largest temple complex of its kind in the Rimac Valley and the best example of architecture from Lima’s Formative Period. Because only an estimated 3% of the compound has been unearthed, archaeologists are hopeful that despite all the losses, the site has many wonders left to discover which would make it a draw for tourists (and their cash) and increase the neighborhood’s understanding of and investment in the great treasure in their midst.

This January, the team discovered a zoomorphic jaguar-like frieze in the atrium of the main pyramid. In May lead archaeologist Hector Walde announced the team unearthed new high relief polychrome friezes carved on a pilaster in the temple complex’s ceremonial entrance. They are in an excellent state of conservation, with the colors of one of them still brilliant. The figures are large anthropomorphic faces with feline characteristics. Archaeologists have also discovered access stairways connected to the main courtyard of the complex have been discovered as well.

The excavation is scheduled to continue for five years.

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Gold coins found in Netherlands from last days of Roman Empire

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

Last summer, De Vrije University asked that people who had made archaeological discoveries under the Portable Antiquities of the Netherlands (PAN) scheme report their finds to university researchers as part of a new study of such finds. One of the reports came from metal detectorist Mark Volleberg who in 2016 unearthed 23 Roman gold coins in an orchard in the village of Lienden on the outskirts of Buren in the central Dutch province of Gelderland. Metal detectorists Dik van Ommeren and Cees-Jan van de Pol reported that they had discovered eight gold coins in the same place in 2012 when the field was cleared to make way for the planting of the orchard.

Researchers sought out more information about this exceptionally productive property. Archival research revealed that the field has been parturient (and you thought “ensorceled” was a good one) with Roman gold since the 19th century. At least twice in the 1840s gold coins had been found on the field in Lienden which then belonged to Baron van Brakell, and more were found in 1905 and 1916. While the whereabouts of the coins from the 19th century are no longer known, extant records mention three gold solidi of Valentinianus, three of Constantine, two of Honorius and one of Majorianus.

Not counting the long-lost ones that can’t be tracked down anymore, the study found a total of 42 pieces unearthed from the orchard site over the years. They are all solidi, a pure gold coin issued in the late Roman Empire, first by Constantine and then by subsequent emperors. The coins found in Leinden were minted over the course of more than 80 years. Most of them, 29 of the solidi, date to the late 4th, early 5th century: five of Valentinian II; 10 of Honorius; 13 of Constantine III and one of Jovinus. A group from the mid-5th century consists of eight solidi of Valentinian III, one of the usurper Johannes and the most recent of them all, a solidus of Majorianus.

The variety of time periods and emperors is not unusual for late Roman solidus hoards. These coins were so valuable, they weren’t in common circulation. They were worth years of pay for most people, and were collected and hoarded for years, even generations. It’s almost certain that they were buried in a single hoard in the very last years of the Western Roman Empire.

These coins, scattered as they are in multiple finds over centuries, are of great historical significance. For one thing, taken all together, they constitute the largest solidus hoard ever found in the Netherlands. They also include the last known Roman coin tax from the Netherlands and environs: the one solidus minted by Emperor Majorianus (r. 457-461). Archaeologists believe the hoard was buried around 460 A.D., a mere 16 years before Odoacer deposed the last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus marking the conventional end date of the Western Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

With the discovery of the 23 gold coins in 2016, Dik van Ommeren and Cees-Jan van de Pol, who up until then had kept their 2012 discovery of gold coins secret, alerted researchers to their 2012 finds. When the archives confirmed the field’s long history of producing Roman solidi,
archaeologists Stijn Heeren and Nico Roymans of the Free University and the National Service for Cultural Heritage determined that the site must be professionally excavated. It was a small excavation, just three trenches, and no new coins were unearthed. The team had also hoped to find remnants of a container — a pouch or box or jar or any other vessel used to hold the hoard when it was still intact — but there was no joy there either. The last item on the agenda was determining the larger context of the hoard. Was it buried in a house or settlement? Maybe a temple or in a grave? Mark Volleberg said he’d seen what looked like human bone fragments where he found the gold coins in 2016. He didn’t touch or disturb them, so archaeologists were hopeful they might be able to find those bones.

They did indeed discover human skeletal remains. Testing determined they belonged to four individuals, three inhumation burials and one cremation grave in an urn. Radiocarbon dating results dashed any hopes that they might be connected to the solidus hoard. The inhumation burials date to around 1800 B.C., the Middle Bronze Age, so way earlier than the coins. The cremains probably date to the Iron Age, but can’t be pinned down with any more precision.

While the burials don’t appear to have a direct link to the hoard, archaeologists suspect the Middle Bronze Age tomb, perhaps on what was then a hill, was used in the 5th century as a handy place marker for the hoard. It would have been a recognizable spot on the landscape, the kind of place you’d pick to bury a treasure you had every intention to come back for when the coast was clear. The hill was likely flattened in the 1840s so it could be used as farmland. That’s when the coins started turning up.

A notable number of late Roman gold coin hoards have been found in the Netherlands and Low Countries, 27 of them, to be precise, most of which date to the beginning of the 5th century. This timing is not a coincidence. Usurper Constantine III’s was fighting against Emperor Honorius while Germanic incursions crossed the Rhine into Gaul, inflicting a blow against the empire’s border defenses from which it never recovered. Desperate for aid from the Franks, who were powerful, centered in Germany and already had an established history of serving as mercenaries in the Roman army, Constantine and Honorius tried to buy them some Frankish troops. Because solidi were pure gold and not subject to the vagaries of debasement, when assorted Roman emperors, rebels and usurpers had cash transactions to make, they used solidi. This was an official payment from government to government. Roman officials would give the Frank leaders piles of gold coins and they would then distribute them as they saw fit.

The Lienden hoard doesn’t quite fit this pattern, however, because it was buried more than 50 years later than most of the other gold coin hoards. Until now, the hoard evidence suggested Rome’s last spate of interest in the Low Countries was the early 5th century, but the new discoveries suggest there was one last injection of Roman gold in the area during the reign of Emperor Majorianus. Archaeologists think the gold payoffs were likely sent by General Aegidius, Majorianus’ man in Gaul, who in the late 450s was desperate to get the Frankish kings to send him soldiers to help him fend off the increasingly successful Germanic invasions of Gaul.

It worked (for a while). With Frankish support, Majorianus and Aegidius reconquered much of Gaul, booting out the Visigoths and Burgundians. When his trusted general Ricimer betrayed and killed Majorianus in 461, Aegidius established his own independent kingdomlet in northern Gaul. Again the Franks were integral to his military success. Frankish leader Childeric and his men fought by Aegidius’ side against the Visigoths at the Battle of Orléans in 463, ensuring his victory. It was short-lived, as was Aegidius. He was poisoned in 464, leaving Childeric ideally positioned to found the Merovingian dynasty that would rule France for three centuries. It’s purely speculative, of course, but given the dates, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that the Lienden solidi were payment dispensed by Childeric to one of his Frankish followers.

The modern finders of the gold coins and the landowner have given the solidi on permanent loan to the Museum Valkhof in Nijmegen, which contains the largest collection of Roman finds in the Netherlands, where they are now on display, together again for the first time in decades, maybe even centuries.

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Restored frescoes in Domitilla catacomb unveiled

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

The catacombs of Santa Domitilla, the oldest network of early Christian burials, covers 7.4 miles and goes down four levels and 200 feet with 26,250 individual tombs. Flavia Domitilla was the niece of the emperor Vespasian who was exiled by her cousin Domitian for religious irregularities (ancient Roman sources say she was convicted of Atheism, the Talmud says she was a convert to Judaism, Eusebius and Jerome say she was condemned as a Christian). She was not buried in the catacomb that bears her name, but it was her property — a farm outside the city — and she permitted its use as a cemetery for Christians, first members of her household, then whoever. The burials in the catacombs date from the 2nd to the 5th centuries.

Because of its great size and complexity and extremely high moisture levels (it’s 90-100% humidity at all times down there), the Domitilla catacomb has long been a conservation challenge. Traditional restoration methods aren’t effective in this environment, but moss, algae, mold, smoke, dirt and calcium carbonate concretions thrive, so much so that they completely obscured the frescoes beneath. In 2009, lasers came into the mix when the entire rabbit warren was 3D scanned and mapped down to the smallest detail for the first time.

Three years ago, lasers rode to the rescue again, only this time they were used to clean the dirt and contaminants from the blackened frescoes on the ceilings and walls of unrestored chambers. This week, the Vatican unveiled to the press the first laser-restored spaces in the catacombs of Santa Domitilla.

“The walls and ceilings were covered in algae, smoke residue and calcium from the damp,” said Barbara Mazzei, who led the team. “We knew there were frescoes­ under there, and the lasers­ let us get to them.”

Ms Mazzei said developments in laser technology had allowed the frescoes to be exposed without the risk of damage that ­removing the grime manually might have caused.

The frequency of the 2mm laser beams can be adjusted to eliminate certain colours — in this case the black of the hard residue. “We worked millimetre by millimetre to lift the grime off,” Ms Mazzei said.

Working in two tombs, they found stunning biblical images, including Jesus feeding the 5000 with bread and fish, as well as a baker with a grain measure and a cycle of frescoes showing grain arriving by ship in Rome from Egypt and bread being sold in the city. “These were rich bakers who had real prestige in Rome because the emperor guaranteed bread, as well as circuses, to the people,” Ms Mazzei said.

Two areas have been fully restored. The first is a 3rd century chamber decorated with frescoes that include multiple pagan motifs. Cupids are popular in this space, mainly in smaller tombs that were probably used to inter children. This area also shows the scars of medieval looters. Frescoes were stripped from the walls by tomb raiders who made a pretty penny cutting the art off the walls and selling them or keeping them as personal trophies.

The second restored space is the cubicle of the bakers (“dei fornai”). Christ and the Apostles decorate the walls alongside scenes of bakers. As well as glorifying the profession and their sponsors, the frescoes also have great symbolic significance because bread loomed large in Christian iconography (loaves and fishes, Last Supper, etc.).

Also looming large on the frescoes in this cubicle is a name written in all caps in black charcoal: BOSIO. This was not left in antiquity. It’s the name of the man who rediscovered the catacomb almost a thousand years after it had fallen into disuse and been forgotten.

Antonio Bosio was the illegitimate son of Giovanni Ottone Bosio, a Knight of Malta who fought in and assiduously documented the Great Siege of Malta when the Ottoman Empire tried and failed to invade the island in 1565. When he wasn’t defending against far superior forces in months-long sieges, Giovanni Ottone busied himself having sex with a servants and murdering a fellow knight from an opposing political faction in St. Peter’s Square. He eventually got amnesty for the latter activity; he got a son from the former.

Antonio was born in 1575 and was raised by his uncle Giacomo in Rome. Giacomo adopted the boy and saw to it he received a thorough education in the humanities. This was a seminal time in the history of paleochristian archaeology. The catacomb of the Giordani was discovered in 1578, a major find during a period when only a handful of early Christian underground burial galleries were known. The Giordani Catacomb, a great labyrinthine structure replete with frescoes and inscriptions in Greek and Latin, was larger and more complex than any of them.

He was just a child when Antonio first learned about the vast cities of the dead underneath his feet from his teachers and friends of his uncle’s. His fascination with these places was sealed then and only increased over time. Antonio Bosio left his name on the catacomb wall on December 10th, 1593, when he was just 17 years old. At the time he thought this network was part of the large complex of the catacombs of Saint Calixtus. It wouldn’t be recognized as the Domitilla catacomb until the 19th century, thanks to the efforts of archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi.

Bosio’s foray into Domitilla’s realm was also his first brush with death in the catacombs. Young Antonio, antiquary Pompeo Ugonio and a small group of other foolhardy explorers went too deep into the tunnels and couldn’t make out their return path. Then their lights went out because they’d been down there longer than they planned. Bosio would later say about this experience: “I began to fear that I should defile by my vile corpse the sepulchres of the martyrs.”

They made it out alive in the end, and Antonio spent the next 36 years studying the catacombs and all the relevant literature he could read, including all the lives of saints, histories of the church, patristic writings in Greek and Latin. Whenever he encountered a reference in the ancient sources to a possible site of a catacomb, he would explore the area over and over, looking for possible entry sites. If he heard of an accidental archaeological find during construction of a basement or foundations, he dropped everything to check it out, taking enormous personal risks to crawl through structurally unsound, collapsed structures.

Even if the roof didn’t fall in on him, exploring the catacombs could still be fatal because the warrens of corridors, chambers and niches are so complex it’s far easier to get lost in them than it is to find your way out. His graffiti had the practical purpose of marking his path should he lose his way. Perhaps his giant John Hancock in the cubicle of the Bakers helped save his life.

Bosio was a true pioneer in this field of study, so even though his methods bear no relevance to archaeology as we know it today, and he had an unfortunate habit of writing his name all over ancient frescoes, he earned the appellation he is still known by today, the Christopher Columbus of the Subterranean New World, fair and square.

The upgrades to the Domitilla catacombs include a new, small but well-appointed museum in the catacomb. It features artifacts like sarcophagus fragments, busts and inscriptions discovered during the excavations and restoration, and underscores the overlap between the art of early Christianity and Roman polytheism. The museum isn’t ready for the public yet. The hope is it will be open by the end of June. The newly restored areas of the catacombs won’t be open to visitors for months.

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Prince of Lavau begins to reveal his secrets

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

In 2015, archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) discovered a princely tomb from the early 5th century B.C. in Lavau, Champagne. The skeletal remains of a richly adorned individual were found next to two-wheeled chariot. Around his neck was a solid gold torc weighing 1.28 pounds, each wrist sported a gold bangle and he wore a finely decorated fibula and belt. A fluted knife in its sheath was also found in his grave. The star of the show was a large bronze cauldron three feet in diameter with four handles hanging from the mouth of river-god Achelous and eight lion heads adorning the rim. It was part of an expensive wine service that included an Attic black figure ceramic oinochoe with gold decoration added to the foot and rim, perforated spoons used as sieves to filter the solids out of the wine and a number of smaller bronze vessels.

The Ministry of Culture enlisted the aid of the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France (C2RMF) to take on the study of this incredible wealth of artifacts with all the technology and expertise at their disposal. Their approach focuses on structure and assembly of the artifacts and the composition of the materials. To achieve their goals, the C2RMF team will employ structural and compositional analytical techniques, 3D photography, organic analysis and X-rays and X-ray tomography.

Because the artifacts are going straight from the excavation to the lab (the C2RMF usually has to deal with artifacts that have been repeatedly restored or treated for display), the team has the rare opportunity to examine the objects in their original condition. The downside of that is that they have to work quickly to clean the artifacts and keep them under the most ideal conservation conditions to ensure they don’t deteriorate rapidly.

The first information on the condition and characteristics of the Prince of Lavau’s artifacts from X-rays and X-ray tomography has now been released.

So far, X-ray radiography shows that the belt worn by the prince is decorated with threads of silver, assembled together to form Celtic motifs. This is a unique object, as none similar have ever been recovered elsewhere before.

Furthermore, an analysis of the metals in the bronze cauldron – one of the most elaborate artefacts recovered from the grave – suggests that the people who created it perfectly mastered smelting and engraving techniques.

More importantly perhaps, 3D photography and chemical analyses of the objects reveal influences from different cultures in the way they were decorated. For instance, a large jar used to pour wine is made up of Greek-style ceramic and decorated with golden Etruscan motifs and silver Celtic designs.

These findings reveal that cultural and economic interactions were taking place between the Celtic and Mediterranean worlds at the time the Lavau Celtic Prince was alive.

X-rays were also used as blueprint to guide the cleaning of the knife and sheath. They revealed that the sheath was made of damask woven with bronze threads. The bronze cauldron, bucket and other vessels have been confirmed as exceptional examples of foundry work. The bucket, made of coils of looped bronze with a high tin content of around 12%, required enormous technical virtuosity as it was painstakingly hammered together. High-resolution 3D imaging found wear patterns on the gold torque and bangles caused by repeated rubbing against the skin or clothes of the Prince of the Lavau, which means he must have worn them in life.

Researchers were able to confirm that the Prince of Lavau was indeed a man. A sheathed knife found in the grave suggested the deceased was male, but the presence of a weapon doesn’t exclude the possibility of a woman having been buried in the grave, and the gold bangles on the wrists are more characteristic of female adornment than male. In the past, gender conclusions were drawn based on the goods in wealthy Celtic graves like those of the Lady of Vix and the Princess of Reinheim, but in both those cases acidic soil had left no skeletal remains for analysis. The Prince of Lavau, on the other hand, left behind a fully articulated skeleton, which allowed experts to determine his sex from the size and shape of his pelvic bone.

The study has only just begun. C2RMF will continue to analyze the Prince of Lavau’s funerary accoutrements until 2019, and will use all available technologies throughout the process, including the stunning synchrotron imaging which did an amazing job with little 17th century clay medallions, so just imagine what it can do with these ancient artifacts of international significance.

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Skrydstrup Woman wasn’t from Denmark either

Monday, May 29th, 2017

In 2015, a team of researchers from the National Museum of Denmark and the University of Copenhagen announced that Egtved Girl, a Bronze Age woman whose well-preserved, beautifully appointed oak burial has made her an icon of Danish archaeology, was not from Denmark. Strontium isotope analysis of her molar and wool fibers found in the grave found that she most probably from southern Germany, most likely the Black Forest area.

Egtved Girl isn’t the only Bronze Age woman in Denmark buried in a hollowed-out oak coffin discovered in an exceptional state of preservation. Researchers have targeted three of them — Egtved Girl, Skrydstrup Woman and the Borum Eshøj Woman — as part of a study that examines the origins and mobility of these women whose rich grave goods and elaborate burials attest to their high social status. The Tales of Bronze Age Women study aims to understand how elite women were perceived in Bronze Age society and what their origins and movements over time can tell us about their roles in establishing and reinforcing long-distance trade networks, political alliances and cultural exchanges.

Skrydstrup Woman was certainly a person of great importance in her community. Her remains were unearthed in a burial mound in Southern Jutland in 1935. One of the richest Bronze Age burials ever discovered, her wool skirt and sweater were in exceptional condition. Attached to her woven belt was an ornate comb made of horn. She wore two large spiral earrings made of gold and a necklace. Her blonde hair was two feet long, intricately plaited in multiple braids then drawn up into an updo bound by a horse-hair hairnet. Her teeth were in fantastic condition, with thick, clean layers of enamel and not a single cavity, evidence that she had had a healthy, varied diet as a child.

Her elaborate hairstyle and clothing, too large and bulky to be practical for moving around in, had to have been arranged as part of her funerary treatment. It must have taken hours for the hair to be braided and styled, and the skirt, made from a single two meter-wide piece of fabric that was repeatedly folded at the waist to create even pleats that went all the way around the body, was also an extremely labour-intensive endeavor. The tumulus she was buried in was 13 meters (42.6 feet) in diameter and 1.75 meters (5.7 feet) high, all formed from thousands of pounds of peat that had to be harvested and arranged into the mound shape. The entire community had to be involved in creating such a time-consuming and resource-intensive grave.

Since the sensational discovery of Egtved Girl’s origins, the research team has discovered that Skrydstrup Woman also moved to Denmark from foreign parts. Like Egtved Girl, she was only around 17 years old when she died in about 1300 B.C., but unlike Egtved Girl, who arrived on Jutland a year or so before her death, she had lived in Skydstrup for three or four years at the time of her death. Before she moved to Denmark as a young teen 13 or 14 years of age, Skydstrup Woman lived hundreds of kilometers away. The strontium isotope signature couldn’t pinpoint the exact location, but likely candidates include what are today the Czech Republic, France or central Germany.

The new information about the famous Bronze Age remains was revealed on national broadcaster DR’s big-budget documentary series Historien om Danmark (The History of Denmark).

“This is going to change a whole lot about our understanding of the entire Bronze Age,” Professor Karin Margarita Frei of the National Museum of Denmark says in the programme. […]

“The result is important because it shows that the Egtved girl was not a freak occurrence. It appears there is a pattern that is telling us how people, and in this instance women, moved around during the Bronze Age,” Frei, who also led the Egtved girl study, told the broadcaster. [..]

The sudden long-distance migration may be the sign of an alliance between tribes or an arranged marriage, Frei told DR.

For more about the Tales of Bronze Age Women project, watch this overview video from the National Museum.
[youtube=https://youtu.be/JwCIkQGTTIw&w=430]

This video gives more detail about how strontium isotopes act as “nature’s GPS.”
[youtube=https://youtu.be/RHvy2Io0d94&w=430]

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