Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

The not-tomb of Romulus: Part the Third

Wednesday, February 26th, 2020

In 2019, Boni’s “crate” captured the attention of Patrizia Fortini, an archaeologist with the Parco Archeological del Colosseo, who was studying his turn-of-the-century excavation records. Boni’s description and the drawings he made, like a cross-section illustrating the stratigraphy of the casket and cylinder in relation to the curia and other finds, underscored that this simple tufa box must have held great importance to be located in the very heart of Rome’s political and religious life. The shrine is in a direct line to the Lapis Niger only yards away, another indicator of its symbolic importance. Fortini also deduced from the drawings that the box was inside a designed structure, ie, a hypogeum or an underground temple.

In November 2019, the excavation began. The Bartoli staircase was dismantled, revealing the nucleus of the ancient staircase Boni had found and structural elements of the portico that had once faced the Curia Julia. Behind a brick wall built by Bartoli to protect the site, the team rediscovered the tufa sarcophagus and cylindrical block.

Both are made of Capitoline tufa quarried in situ, which is about as local a material as you can get, and which attests to their great age. As Rome’s territories expanded, they turned to richer sources of stone outside the city center instead of gutting the soft, friable tufa out of the Capitoline and Palatine. Large blocks of grey tufa on the south and west sides may have been part of the structure of the hypogeum itself.

As far as what might link this empty sarcophagus with the cult of Romulus, the biggest clue comes from a lost ancient text by the prolific polymath Marcus Terrentius Varro (116-27 B.C.) who wrote at least 74 works in more than 600 volumes on many topics including the Latin language, philosophy, what in the Middle Ages would become known as the nine liberal arts, architecture, agriculture, religion and history. His chronology of the consuls established the founding date of Rome as 753 B.C. and while there were plenty of other proposed dates, Varro’s is the one that stuck.

The only complete work of his that has survived is Three Books on Agriculture, in which, as an aside to illustrate what a genius this guy was, he postulated the existence of microscopic creatures that enter the body and cause disease. We have only fragments from his Antiquities of Human and Divine Things, mostly quotes in Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, full name: On the city of God against the pagans, a rebuttal of the widespread belief that the sack of Rome in 410 was the result of the abandonment of the city’s traditional gods. Smaller quotes from Varro’s Antiquities can be found in a number of surviving ancient text. In one from a scholia (scholarly annotation) of Horace’s Epodi XVI, Varro states that Romulus was buried behind the Rostra. That’s where the hypogeal chamber with the sarcophagus is located.

Making a conclusive link between this find and the symbolic Tomb of Romulus is likely impossible, as there are simply too many variables and unknowns. This incredibly long-winded extendopost only scratches the surface of them. Nonetheless, it’s a discovery of great antiquity and significance.

Excavations will pick up again at the end of April. Archaeologists will be looking at the stratigraphic section on the west side of the chamber in particular. They will also look under the Curia Julia itself. Bartoli noted that there were two trapdoors in the Curia. Both are in line with hypogeum and monumental blocks of tufa are visible through them today. It’s possible those blocks were part of the underground temple’s back wall.


The not-tomb of Romulus: Part the Second

Tuesday, February 25th, 2020

The legends of the founding of Rome have come down to us from ancient chroniclers, but the earliest extant accounts we have come from the 2nd century B.C., more than 600 years after the supposed events. Those authors refer to earlier histories, now lost, but it doesn’t exactly help identify any potential kernels of truth. It just adds to the cacophony of unknowns.

Here, for example, is Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus writing in the 1st century B.C. (Roman Antiquities I.72):

But as there is great dispute concerning both the time of the building of the city and the founders of it, I have thought it incumbent on me also not to give merely a cursory account of these things, as if they were universally agreed on. For Cephalon of Gergis, a very ancient writer, says that the city was built in the second generation after the Trojan war by those who had escaped from Troy with Aeneas, and he names as the founder of it Romus, who was the leader of the colony and one of Aeneas’ sons; he adds that Aeneas had four sons, Ascanius, Euryleon, Romulus and Remus. And Demagoras, Agathyllus and many others agree with him as regards both the time and the leader of the colony. But the author of the history of the priestesses at Argos and of what happened in the days of each of them says that Aeneas came into Italy from the land of the Molossians with Odysseus and became the founder of the city, which he named after Romê, one of the Trojan women. He says that this woman, growing weary with wandering, stirred up the other Trojan women and together with them set fire to the ships. And Damastes of Sigeum and some others agree with him. But Aristotle, the philosopher, relates that some of the Achaeans, while they were doubling Cape Malea on their return from Troy, were overtaken by a violent storm, and being for some time driven out of their course by the winds, wandered over many parts of the sea, till at last they came to this place in the land of the Opicans which is called Latinium, lying on the Tyrrhenian sea. And being pleased with the sight of land, they hauled up their ships, stayed there the winter season, and were preparing to sail at the beginning of spring; but when their ships were set on fire in the night and they were unable to sail away, they were compelled against their will to fix their abode in the place where they had landed. This fate, he says, was brought upon them by the captive women they were carrying with them from Troy, who burned the ships, fearing that the Achaeans in returning home would carry them into slavery. Callias who wrote of the deeds of Agathocles, says that Romê, one of the Trojan women who came into Italy with the other Trojans, married Latinus, the king of the Aborigines, by whom she had three son, Romus, Romulus and Telegonus, . . . and having built a city, gave it the name of their mother. Xenagoras, the historian, writes that Odysseus and Circê had three sons, Romus, Anteias and Ardeias, who built three cities and called them after their own names. Dionysius of Chalcis names Romus as the founder of the city, but says that according to some this man was the son of Ascanius, and according to others the son of Emathion. There are others who declare that Rome was built by Romus, the son of Italus and Leucaria, the daughter of Latinus.

If you think that was a long quote, consider that that’s just the paragraph about the Greek historians, and he didn’t even include all of them. He goes on to relay some of the conflicting stories and dates in Roman accounts. (A moment of silence for all these books we will never get to read.)

By the time of the late Republic, the Romulus legend was thoroughly ingrained in Roman culture. Although chroniclers still debated the veracity of various elements and versions, they expressed no doubt on the historicity of Romulus himself. There were several important cult sites dedicated to the founder: the temple to Jupiter Stator built by Romulus after the peace with Titus Tatius, the wild fig tree the twins had been found under was transplanted to the Forum, the humble wood and thatch house Romulus had built for himself on the Palatine still stood and would continue to be a noted city landmark at least into the 4th century A.D., the Lapis Niger, an ancient shrine in the Forum featuring a truncated tufa pillar inscribed in Latin so old that nobody in the late Republic could read it, was alternately said to mark the spot of Romulus’ death or grave, that of his adoptive father Faustulus, or that of Hostus Hostilius (father of the third king, Tullus Hostilius), who had died heroically fighting off the Sabines.

The question of Romulus’ death was just as much debated as every other aspect of the founding. Livy and Plutarch relay accounts that, accompanied by mighty thunderclaps, Romulus was assumed bodily into heaven and became the god Quirinus, protector of Rome. They also proffers another possibility: that that was just a story told to appease the masses after Romulus’ sudden disappearance, when really the senators had killed Romulus, cut his body into small pieces and smuggled chunks of him in the folds of their togas to dispose of the evidence of their regicide.

The lack of a physical body was no barrier to a tomb, however. A cenotaph — an empty tomb memorializing the dead — or heroon — a shrine dedicated to a hero built over his ostensible tomb — required no bodily remains, and whatever the real origins and ages of these relics of Romulus, they were revered as sacred sites.

Between natural disasters, unnatural ones like the Gallic sack in 390 B.C., an ever-expanding population, normal wear and tear and shifts in fashion, the architecture of the city never stood still. The Lapis Niger was covered, at first after it was damaged in the sack, again, possibly by Sulla, and then entirely obscured by Julius Caesar’s major reorientation of the Forum. The massive markets, basilicas and forums of the Imperial age needed deep foundations, and much of Rome’s earliest archaeology must have been destroyed during those construction programs.

After the fall of Western Empire, the city cannibalized itself. Ancient structures were left to ruin, built onto, deliberately demolished or scavenged for their materials. Layers upon layers of construction, flood silt, disaster rubble built up over 1,500 years, raising ground level far above the earliest remains and creating a stratigraphic maze below.

The first to attempt to crack the complex conundrum of what was under the Forum from what era was archaeologist Giacomo Boni, director of excavations in the Roman Forum from 1898 until his death in 1925. Boni’s work was groundbreaking in more than the literal sense as he was the first to undertake a systematic analysis of the stratigraphy of the Forum, the archaeological nucleus of the city. He unearthed the two most ancient sites in Rome: a tufa shrine he identified as the Vulcanal and the Lapis Niger.

In his 1899 excavation, the results of which he published in 1900, Boni noted the discovery of a tufa coffin and cylinder under what was left of the ancient staircase in front of the Curia Julia.

3.6 meters [11.8 feet] from the nucleus of the staircase, a rectangular tufa casket or basin 1.4 meters long [4.6 feet], .7 meters [2.3 feet] wide and .77 meters [2.5 feet] high was found, in front of which rises a cylindrical trunk of tufa .75 meters [2.5 feet] in diameter.

The tufa case contained pebbles, shards of coarse pots, fragments of pottery from Campania, a certain amount of pectunculus valves [sea snail shells] and a piece of red colored plaster.

That’s all he had to say about it. Boni recorded the find but did not connect it to Romulus or any other ancient monument, and moved right along to record the myriad other finds he’d made in his pioneering excavation of one of the most archaeologically dense spots in the world.

In the 1930s, archaeologist Alfonso Bartoli was directed by Mussolini to peel the church additions off the Curia Julia and restore it as close as possible to its ancient design. He built a new staircase in front of it over the nucleus of the ancient one. And over the modest little tufa sarcophagus and cylinder Boni had unearthed.

Bartoli could so easily have done what 2,500 years of Roman builders before him had done and destroyed those remains in the process. They were deep underground, visually unremarkable, entirely out of sync with Mussolini’s fantasy of the shiny white marble imperial city, and basically unknown. Instead, he kept the shrine intact and safe, building brick pillars to sustain a soffit made of iron beams and perforated wooden planks.

Even though nobody knew about it, Bartoli’s protective structure was securely in place when the excavation team from the Parco Archeological del Colosseo began to retrace Boni’s steps in November 2019.


Tomb of Romulus definitely not found: Part the First

Monday, February 24th, 2020

Last Monday, Alfonsina Russo, director of the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum, announced the discovery of a tufa sarcophagus and cylindrical stone under the Roman Forum believed to have been part of a shrine to Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. Its position in the stratigraphy of the Forum dates it to the 6th century B.C., making it one of the most ancient monuments in the city.

There wasn’t a great deal of information in the release about the find, and the combination of “sarcophagus” and “Romulus” generated a predictable spate of headlines about his tomb maybe having been discovered. The Daily Beast’s “Did Rome Archeologists Uncover Proof of Romulus?” was my favorite. You have to get halfway down the article before the clickbaity question it poses is answered, as it could only ever be, in the negative, even though the story reports on a press conference in which Russo explicitly stated, “This cannot be his tomb.”

But to nerds like me (and you, which is why you’re reading this), there’s plenty of nutritious meat on the bones of those ancient tufa remains without needing to coat them in a sugary BBQ sauce of what-ifs: the traditions and legends underpinning them, sure, but also their significance and connection from the early Republic to the Empire, how they were rediscovered in the modern era with the deployment of new archaeological practices in Rome’s most ancient heart, how they were covered back up during the 1930s as part of Mussolini’s program of recreating a Rome of imperial grandeur (but secretly protected when they could so easily have been destroyed), how they were re-rediscovered again using a combination of old excavation records and ancient sources.

Because this is such a fascinatingly complicated story, my paltry attempt to break down some of those complexities will take a chronological approach, starting with legend as it brushes up against history, and then archaeology, both its practice and the material culture it uncovered.

Let us go then, you and I, back in time to the legendary founding of Rome. You know the story, I’m sure, of how the twins Romulus and Remus, sons of the virgin priestess Rhea Silvia and the god Mars, were condemned to be drowned in the Tiber by her irate uncle. As so often happens in these tales, the people tasked with the unpleasant duty of infanticide chickened out and left the babies next to the banks of the river at flood. There they were found by a lactating she-wolf who suckled them under the shade of a wild fig tree until a swineherd named Faustulus happened by and took them home to raise as his own. They grew into strapping lads keen to found a new city. In 753 B.C. (the traditional date arrived at hundreds of years later by historians following the line of consuls back to the mythical days and using the years of the Olympic Games as a lodestar), Romulus chose the Palatine hill for his, Remus the Aventine. When Remus mocked his brother’s new boundary wall by jumping over it, Romulus killed him. Within that blooded boundary the city of Rome grew, populated first by the exiles and assorted undesirables from neighboring communities, then with Sabine women acquired through treachery and rape, its territory expanded in wars with surrounding tribes.

It was one of those wars — the violent reaction to Rome’s assorted undesirables having kidnapped Sabine maidens and forced them into marriage — that spurred the creation of what would become the very nucleus, political, religious and historical, of the city of Rome. The Sabines had spent a year preparing for this fight. By then their daughters were married to and had children with their abductors and had no desire to see either side slaughtered. When the Sabine women rushed the battlefield pleading that their families and husbands make peace so they would be neither widows nor orphans, the Romans on the Palatine and the Sabines occupying the Capitoline citadel met in the valley between them and laid down their arms. They signed a peace treaty and came together with Romulus and Sabine King Titus Tatius as co-kings of a united people.

That valley between the hills would grow and evolve over centuries into the Roman Forum, incarnating in its geography the blurry lines between myth and history. The Curiate Assembly, created by Romulus who divided his new city into tribes (curiae) for the purpose of political representation, met there to vote and hold public meetings in the comitium, an open-air space located in what is now the northwest corner of the Forum. Speakers would address the assembled from what would become known in the 4th century B.C. as the rostra, a platform facing the comitium. On the north side of the comitium across from the rostra the first Senate house, the Curia Hostilia, was built by King Tullus Hostilius (r. 673-641 B.C.).

Whatever was left of this ancient building during the turbulent days of the later Republic was demolished by dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. In its place and taking over a solid half of the comitium, Sulla built a much larger curia to accommodate the Senate whose membership he had doubled. That one was burned down in 52 B.C. when it was used as an impromptu funeral pyre for Publius Clodius Pulcher after he was killed by the gladiatorial goon squad of his political enemy Titus Annius Milo. It was rebuilt by Sulla’s son Faustus, but was converted into a temple in 44 B.C. by Julius Caesar who built a new Senate house, the Curia Julia, between it and the rostra. It still stands today, albeit extensively rebuilt under Domitian and having spent 1500 years as a church.

It is in front of the Curia Julia, 12 feet beneath the masonry nucleus of the long-gone ancient staircase, that archaeologists discovered the tufa sarcophagus.


Stele from lost kingdom boasting of defeat of Phrygia found by Turkish farmer

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020

A Turkish farmer discovered an ancient stele from a lost kingdom that boasts of having defeated the powerful kingdom of Phrygia.  Last summer, the farmer alerted archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute (OI) who were surveying the ancient site of Türkmen-Karahöyük that he had seen a large stone with curious inscriptions when digging an irrigation canal the winter before. The team found the stone still in place sticking out of the water of the canal. They recognized the script as Luwian, an ancient  Indo-European language used in the area during the Bronze and Iron Ages.

Working under the Konya Regional Archaeological Survey Project, Osborne and UChicago students were mapping the site as part of the Türkmen-Karahöyük Intensive Survey Project, located in an area littered with other famous ancient cities. Just by walking around the site’s surface, they collected bits of broken pottery from three thousand years of habitation at the site—a rich and promising find—until the farmer’s chance visit pointed them to the stone block known as a stele.

Osborne immediately identified a special hieroglyphic marking that symbolized the message came from a king. The farmer helped pull the massively heavy stone stele out of the irrigation canal with a tractor. From there it went to the local Turkish museum, where it was cleaned, photographed and readied for translation.

The full inscription was deciphered by OI experts in Luwian script. It tells of King Hartapu, conqueror of the kingdom of Muska (aka Phrygia), courtesy of the storm gods who “delivered the kings to his majesty.” Linguistic analysis dates the stele to the late eighth century B.C. which is when Phrygia was ruled was King Midas.

This has of course given rise to many headlines about the local king defeating Midas, but that’s a bit of an equivocation. It’s not the legendary King Midas of golden touch and ears of an ass fame. If there was a real ruler named Midas who is the kernel of truth inside the legend, he lived long before the 8th century B.C. The first known historical ruler of Phrygia of that name (there are several) is recorded by ancient Greek and Assyrian chroniclers. Assyrian records of a King “Mita” of the Mushki (central Anatolian people associated with the Phrygians) date to between c. 718 and 709 B.C., the reign of Sargon II. Mita is first mentioned in 718 B.C. as being allied with an enemy of Sargon. Assyria defeated them, but nine years later Mita pled for aid from Sargon when his kingdom was attacked by Cimmerians, nomads from the Black Sea. Strabo writes in Geography I.III.21 that when the Cimmerians conquered Midas’ capital of Gordium, the king killed himself by drinking bull’s blood.

Setting the Midas issue aside, which is for the best as really there is no way of knowing if he was the king when this stele was inscribed and his name is only coming up because it’s so recognizable from an unrelated legend, the stele is important in what it reveals about the history of Türkmen-Karahöyük.

[N]ot quite 10 miles to the south is a volcano with a well-known inscription in hieroglyphics. It refers to a King Hartapu, but no one knew who he was—or what kingdom he ruled.

Now we know that Hartapu ruled Türkmen-Karahöyük, one of the largest cities of Asia Minor which at its peak covered 300 acres. Its ancient name remains unknown, but the OI’s Türkmen-Karahöyük Intensive Survey Project hopes to answer that question too.


Painting of Ra found inside 3,000-year-old coffin

Thursday, February 20th, 2020

A painting of the Egyptian sun god Ra has been found inside the coffin of  22nd Dynasty (945‒712 B.C.) priest Ankh-khonsu now at the Harvard Semitic Museum. When conservators opened the lid, they saw the image of the falcon-headed god, partially obscured by blackened resin that was poured over the coffin during the funerary rights, on the interior bottom of the case.

The coffin has been in the museum’s collection for 118 years, so you’d think its contents wouldn’t come as a surprise, but the mummy it once held was removed when it arrived at the museum and the closed coffin has been display most of the time since. It was opened again 30 years ago, but its interior was either not documented or the records were lost.

There was no risk of that happening this time. The coffin was opened in order to digitize it, part of a program to record every detail of the object and create a digital model that will allow museum visitors, the interested public and researchers around the world full access to Ankh-khonsu’s coffin without interfering with its display or conservation environment.

Despite the uneven texture of the area and the dark coating, Manuelian and his colleagues could see the yellow, orange, and blue painting and the hieroglyphs that read “Ra-Horakhty, the great God, Lord of Heaven” next to the figure.

As part of the project, Manuelian assembled an “all-star cast” of conservators, a professional photographer, and pigment sampling and residue and wood analysis experts to collect information and capture imagery of the coffin materials and adornments. Colleagues came from as far away as University College London and from just down the street at the Harvard Art Museums.

From the hieroglyphics on the coffin we know Ankh-khonsu was a doorkeeper in the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak in ancient Thebes (modern-day Luxor). It was a position he inherited from his father Ankh-en-amun. Two other 22nd Dynasty coffins in the museum, a painted wood one belonging to Mut-iy-iy  and a cartonnage one belonging to Pa-di-mut, were also opened, documented and scanned, but their records were more complete so no surprises were found.

Great flukes of history tangent!

The coffin was given to the museum by Theodore M. Davis (1838-1915), a wealthy lawyer, businessman and avid Egyptophile who spent the last 15 years of his life spending winters in Egypt and sponsoring excavations. The digs he funded in the Valley of the Kings unearthed 30 tombs: KV20, the original tomb of Thutmose I, KV43, tomb of Pharaoh Thutmose IV, and KV55, aka the Amarna cache, containing the remains of Pharaoh Akhenaten, among other notable finds.

The first three seasons of Davis’ excavations were conducted by Howard Carter, then the inspector-general of antiquities for Upper Egypt. Despite the many important discoveries his teams had made, Davis wanted more than anything to find an intact royal tomb and he came to believe that the Valley of the Kings, thoroughly plundered and recycled as its tombs had been over the millennia, was “exhausted” of any such treasure. He gave up the exclusive concession to excavate the Valley of the Kings in 1914. Who got it next, you ask? Why, that would be Lord Carnarvon. The rest, as they say, is history. Davis died in 1915 so he never saw his successor and his former dig leader hit the dirtiest of all paydirt when they discovered the untouched tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 six feet away from where Davis’ last excavation had stopped.


Unique Roman dagger set found in Germany

Tuesday, February 18th, 2020

A highly decorated Roman silver dagger unearthed last April from a burial ground in Haltern, Germany, has been restored and looks so good you’d think it was a replica. Unearthed complete with its original scabbard and belt, the 1st century pugio is a unique find in the European archaeological record. It was discovered by 19-year-old intern Nico Calmund during a joint excavation done by the Westphalia-Lippe Landscape Association (LWL) and the University of Trier. When his shovel encountered a hard object three feet under the surface, he figured it would be an iron nail, only to find he’d discovered an archaeological sensation.

Its location was incredibly fortuitous. At the time of its burial, the dagger was about 15 inches below the surface. Had it remained that shallow, it could easily have been destroyed by agricultural activity in subsequent centuries. If it had been buried lower or displaced downward, it would have been destroyed or carried away by rainwater runoff. The dagger was preserved in the wash-in horizon, where water infiltration causes matter to accumulate instead of being washed out.

The fact that it was there at all is puzzling to experts. This was a burial ground for the Roman military camp. The dead were cremated and buried in simple urn graves without goods in a mound. The dagger was found in a trench dug around the hill and backfilled. The only other pugio (no sheath or belt) found at Haltern was unearthed in 1967, but it was in the military camp itself, not the cemetery. The odds of so valuable an object having being lost by accident and left behind at the burial ground are slim, to say the least, so how did it wind up there?

The soil where the dagger was found was removed en bloc and transported to the LWL conservation lab for excavation and analysis. Caked in corrosion, the dagger’s details were entirely obscured until X-rays and CT scans revealed that the weapon was still sheathed in its ornately decorated scabbard and the metal belt it hung from 2,000 years ago remained intact.

Its narrow blade shape and method of manufacture classify it as a dagger of the Vindonissa type, in use from northern Italy to the North Sea to southern England during the first half of the 1st century. It was manufactured in the Roman province of Noricum (modern-day Austria and Slovenia), the source of the highest quality steel in the empire and the major purveyor of weapons to the Roman army. The front of the scabbard and the hilt are decorated with finely wrought inlays of silver wire. The thinnest of the silver wire pieces are just .15 millimeters thick. They were placed in herringbone, chevron, diagonal, vertical and horizontal patterns creating dazzling geometric designs, leaves, diamonds, semi-circles, rectangles. Red enamel and red glass circles and triangles dot the sheath and hilt.

As spectacular as it is, this piece was not a decorative accessory. It was a military dagger worn by legionaries, non-commissioned officers or centurions, for close-quarters combat, and there are signs of wear of the blade, areas of silver loss during use. Elements on the knob that would originally have been silver were lost and replaced by brass, and the rings that connected it to the belt are abraded from the leather ties that rubbed against them for years.

Conservators were able to remove the dagger from the sheath and restore both pieces as well as the belt. Even with detailed imaging from the scans, the job took nine months to accomplish.

While conventional X-rays only produce two-dimensional images, computer tomograph[y] depict the objects in many layers that can be viewed individually. “On the basis of the CT images, for example, we were able to see that the handle is made up of numerous individual components made of different materials, which are connected with eight rivet pins. The images also provide information about the maintenance of the exchange work and the condition of the numerous enamel inserts. These Information is of great importance for the subsequent restoration, “said [LWL restorer Eugen] Müsch. In addition, the CT measurement showed that the blade of the dagger consists of different steels that were welded together in the forge.

The belt also consists of numerous elements. The leather was densely covered with bronze or brass plates. To give the impression of expensive silver, the metal plates were coated with tin. The belt has two hooks into which the dagger was hung using leather loops. Parts of the belt leather are still preserved, which even show seams. Flax was used as the yarn.

“Scientific studies and interdisciplinary work are necessary prerequisites for any research nowadays,” explains Prof. Michael Rind, director of LWL archeology for Westphalia. The dagger sheath, for example, consists of a wooden core that was determined as linden wood at the University of Cologne. The exact chemical composition of the metals and the glass inlays was also analyzed.

The dagger, its sheath and belt continue to be studied by experts. The plans is to put them on display in the LWL Roman Museum in Haltern starting March 2022.

This German-language video shows the dagger being scanned with the Helix-CT process and the revelation of what an absolute marvel was hiding underneath the thick encrustations of corrosion material.


Bronze Age amber sun disk found 10 years after excavation

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

An excavation in Løgstrup, northwest of Viborg in Denmark in 2008 and 2009 unearthed a distinctive Late Bronze Age settlement site with the remains of farm houses, cooking pits and bronze casting pits. The site had been built and expanded in phases around 900-700 B.C., artifacts including bronze objects, amber, pottery and two urns believed to be cremation burials. The urns were recovered and taken to the Viborg Museum for later research.

In October 2019, a full decade after their discovery, the two urns were CT scanned. The scan found bone fragments in both urns, the remains of cremations archaeologists had expected to find. One of the urns contained something unexpected: a small object shaped like a small hockey puck. Researchers carefully excavated the urn and retrieved the hockey puck. It looked unremarkable at first, but once it was cleaned, archaeologists could see it was an extremely rare amber object from the Bronze Age known as a solar disk. This is the first documented discovery of a Bronze Age solar disk in Denmark.

The piece is small at 3 cm (1.2″) in diameter and .9 cm (.35″) thick, but it would have been highly valuable both for the expense of the amber material and because it was very finely crafted. When lit from behind, it glows fire red with concentric circles of cells that look like a dahlia. It had not been burned on the pyre with the teenager whose remains were in the urn, but been placed on top of his or her burned legs afterward.

Amber was a valuable commodity in the north during the Bronze Age. It was a symbol of the sun, a manifestation of the sun’s power and light, design motifs indicating a belief that just like the sun traveled across the sky during the day, it traveled through the underworld at night. The expensive amber disk may have been added to the burial as an indicator of societal position and/or as a religious expression, a prayer that the deceased’s spirit would travel to the afterlife in the protective embrace of the sun.

It’s also just uncannily beautiful. This is what it looks like under normal light.

This is what it looks like with a light shining behind it.


Senet board from transition between Middle and New Kingdom identified

Wednesday, February 12th, 2020

The ancient board game of senet dates back at least to Egypt’s First Dynasty (ca. 3000 B.C.) and continued to be popular with people at all levels of society through the Greco-Roman Period. Boards — formal ones and impromptu versions in graffiti and painted or scratched onto ostraca (pottery fragments) — game pieces, surviving texts and depictions on tomb walls make it one of the best documented games in history.

Even so, there is still much we don’t know about senet and how it was played, and its extraordinary longevity makes it a unique example of how games evolve over time. A new study of a previously unpublished senet board in the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California, has found it to be an important transitional piece in the development of the game.

At its core, senet was a backgammon-like game in which two players vied to move their five pawns through the rows in a serpentine pattern to the last square. They used throw sticks to determine how to move the pawns. Depending how many of the sticks landed on the flat side, players moved different numbers of spaces. Pieces could pass each other, get knocked out, blocked, go backwards as well as forwards. The first player to get all the tokens off the board from square 30 won.

Four (five in some variations of the grid) of the squares had symbols on the squares marking those cells as having special functions. They were called houses and could trap a piece, send it back, give the player a second turn, etc. Those symbols went from game mechanisms to religious allegories in the New Kingdom. Depictions of the game on tomb walls, which in the Old Kingdom featured people playing against each other, now featured the deceased playing an invisible opponent. Texts from the period indicate the game connected the souls of the dead and the living, and that the houses represented obstacles and steps encountered by the soul on the way to the afterlife.

The Rosicrucian board is actually a table. Carved out of a single piece of cedar, it features a playing surface, a panel running along the rear length and two rectangular legs at each end crossing the full width of the board. It is the only senet table ever discovered. Although there are depictions of senet tables in Egyptian art, all other senet boards that have been found are boxes, slabs and graffiti.

The surface is worn, but the typical senet grid pattern — 30 squares in three rows of 10 — is incised into the tabletop.  Four of the squares, numbers 26, 27, 28 and 29, contain symbols written in hieroglyphic cursive: nfr (good), a sort of rustic version of the Ankh, mw (water) drawn as three parallel lines, three seated men and two seated men.

In their upright orientation, the hieroglyphs are positioned at the top left of the board, a variant most often found in the Middle Kingdom/Second Intermediate Period, instead of the bottom right. The seven senet boards that have been discovered with this orientation date to the 12th – 17th Dynasties, but they do not have the same symbols. The writing on the Rosicrucian senet is instead typical of the 18th Dynasty.

The comparative material discussed in the foregoing section suggests that the senet board in the Rosicrucian Museum demonstrates a transitional stage in the pattern of decoration between the Middle Kingdom/Second Intermediate Period and the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The orientation of the board, with the marked squares at the top left, points to an early date. The latest board with the same orientation as the Rosicrucian senet is drawn in ink on the back of a schoolboy’s writing tablet (the ‘Carnarvon Tablet’), now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (JdE 41.790). It was found by Howard Carter in Asasif Tomb 9, and dates to the Seventeenth Dynasty. All other previously published senet boards dating later than this board—for which orientation can be determined—show the opposite configuration, with squares 26 to 29 at the lower right. […]

Considering the morphology of the Rosicrucian senet game, the date range during which people were making similar choices in the design of game boards extends from the Twelfth Dynasty (based on orientation) to the Nineteenth Dynasty (because it is a game box). The end points of this range can be narrowed down further based on the style of the markings in squares 26 to 29. Since the markings do not contain the superfluous ones seen in the Middle Kingdom boards, that period can be eliminated as a possible date. Furthermore, the progression of nfr, mw, three seated men, and two seated men only has parallels in the early Eighteenth Dynasty, specifically the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III.

This leaves a gap, however, between the last known example of a game with the top left orientation of squares 26 to 29 (Seventeenth Dynasty), and the appearance of this particular style of marking (Hatshepsut), of roughly 70 years. There are currently no senet boards that can be attributed to the period from the reign of Ahmose I to that of Thutmose II. Thus, the evolution of senet boards from the earlier games of the Middle Kingdom—with their simple decoration and top left placement of the marked squares—to that of the New Kingdom—with elaborated decoration and lower right placement of marked squares—is poorly understood. We know that at least during the Seventeenth Dynasty, game boxes and boards with the top left orientation coexisted, as evidenced by the game from the Tomb of Hornakht at Dra Abu el-Naga and the Carnarvon Tablet. There is, however, no evidence for the elaborated decoration seen on the Rosicrucian board during the Second Intermediate Period. These same two boards are the only ones marked from that period, and the Hornakht box only contains m in square 27, and the Carnarvon Tablet has nfr, X, three, two.

It would seem prudent to propose then, that the game box in the Rosicrucian Museum represents a transitional form between the top left oriented schoolboy’s tablet and the game box with nearly identical markings from the tomb of Hatshepsut. No other games can be securely dated to the intervening period either through archaeological context or by style alone, so this game is a likely candidate to fill that stylistic gap.

There is almost no information about the Rosicrucian board’s history. It entered the museum’s collection in 1947. The previous owner was Lord William-Tyssen Amherst, First Baron of Hackney, who acquired a large collection of antiquities in the late 19th century. Where it came from or where he got it is unknown, other than that he died in 1906 so he had to have purchased it before then. Without its original archaeological context, the only possible way to confirm its age is radiocarbon dating.


New finds in Havering Hoard revealed

Monday, February 10th, 2020

The Havering Hoard, a cache of 453 bronze objects dating to 900 – 800 B.C. that was discovered in a 2018 archaeological survey in an east London quarry overlooking the Thames, is even more unusual that it seemed when the find was announced last year. Museum of London curators have been examining the objects closely before they go on display for the first time and have discovered additional rarities.

The collection of chisels, sickles, metal ingots, weapons and axe heads is the largest Bronze Age hoard ever discovered in London and the third largest ever found in the UK, and it includes two decorated terret rings — fittings from a horse-drawn cart that kept reins from getting tangled — that are unique for the UK. Terret rings have been found before in France, but not Britain. Conservators have now identified a bracelet that was imported, likely from northwest France, and copper ingots from the Alps.

Kate Sumnall, a curator of archaeology at the museum, said the unexpected finds suggested links to Europe that were nearly 3,000 years old.

“These objects give clues about how this wasn’t an isolated community but rather one that fitted into a much larger cultural group with connections along the Thames Valley and across the continent.”

The question of how and why this hoard was assembled and deposited remains unanswered.

There are four theories about why so many objects would have been deliberately broken and meticulously buried.

  • Was it a ritualistic offering to the gods?
  • Was it to do with it being the late bronze age and start of the iron age, so the objects were no longer so highly valued or wanted?
  • Could a powerful person have been trying to control the amount of bronze that was in circulation and being traded?
  • Or was the location a kind of bronze age storage site? The total weight of the objects is 45kg [99 lbs], so they could not have been easily carried around.

The hoard will be going on display for the first time in an exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands this spring. Havering Hoard: A Bronze Age Mystery opens April 3rd and runs through November 1st.


Janet Stephens is back!

Sunday, February 9th, 2020

It’s been more than a year and a half since Janet Stephens posted one of her epic historic hairstyling tutorials using period-accurate tools and it’s been three years since the last Roman hairstyle. Now she’s back with an intricate 9-strand braid worn by the Empress Herennia Etruscilla in the mid-3rd century A.D.

The 3rd century was a chaotic time for the Roman Empire. After the assassination of the last Severan emperor, Severus Alexander, in 235, the combination of internal political turmoil, civil wars, Germanic invasions, increasing expansion of the Persian Sassanid Empire, economic depression and plagues, nearly drove the empire to collapse. By 268, like the Gaul of Julius Caesar’s time, the empire itself was divided into three parts — the Gallic Roman Empire (Gaul, Britannia and Hispania), the  Palmyrene Empire (Syria, Egypt, Arabia, Asia Minor) and the Roman Empire (Italy). It would be reunited under in 270 by Aurelian, builder of the walls around Rome. The Crisis would come to its full end with the ascension of Diocletian in 284, 26 dead emperors after it began.

So when Herennia Etruscilla was getting her hair did by extremely nimble-fingered ornatrices, she was enjoying what would be a very brief window of time at the top. Her husband Decius was acclaimed as emperor in September 249 after he killed his predecessor Philip the Arab. His reign lasted less than two years, ending with his death in battle at the hands of the Goths in June 251. His and Herennia Etruscilla’s oldest son and co-emperor died with him. Their youngest son, 13-year-old Hostilian, succeeded to the throne, but only as co-emperor to the troops’ choice Trebonianus Gallus, and only for a few months before his death either from plague or at the hand of said Trebonianus Gallus.

During those few months of Hostilian’s rise to the purple, Herennia Etruscilla acted as regent. Almost nothing is known about her life, but thanks to the devaluation of currency and the constant cranking out of coinage, we have a surprisingly rich record of her portraiture. There are 13 different coins from aurei to sestertii that feature her profile with views of her elaborate hairstyling.

From one of those coin portraits, Janet selected a nine-strand braid arranged in a column style, meaning in a single thick plait up the back of the head. It requires a dexterity beyond my comprehension and hair of such length and thickness that it’s no wonder it took Janet a decade to get to this look. It is truly a masterful feat of patience and skill. My one regret is that she wasn’t able to include the stephane — a Hellenic style of diadem that comes to a point in the front — that Herennia Etruscilla Augusta wears in all of her coins.





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