Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

French student finds 560,000-year-old tooth

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

A French art history student has discovered an adult human tooth around 560,000 years old in the Arago Cave in Tautavel, southern France. It is one of the oldest human fossils ever found in Europe (the oldest is a 600,000-year-old jawbone found in Germany in 1907), and the oldest human body part ever found in France by 100,000 years. Its significance is bolstered by the scarcity of human remains in Europe from this period. There’s something of a gap in the record between 500,000 and 800,000 years ago and very little new material has been found. This one tooth is therefore of outsized importance.

Volunteer excavator Valentin Loescher, 20, one of more than 30 young people from France and around the world participating in this season’s excavation, discovered the tooth the afternoon of Thursday, July 23rd, in a section of the cave liberally sprinkled with animal remains. The volunteer digging next to him, Camille Jacquey, 16, was on a break when he found it. When she returned, they showed the find to Amélie Vialet, the paleoanthropologist leading the excavation team, who identified it as an adult human incisor from a lower jaw. Its age was determined by stratigraphic analysis; the layer in which the tooth was found has been dated with a variety of methods to confirm its range, so researchers are satisfied that the tooth is at least 550,000 years old, and maybe as much as 580,000 years old.

Yves Coppens, professor of paleoanthropology and prehistory at the Collège de France, who was part of the 1970s team that discovered the remains of the famous early human ancestor known as Lucy in Ethiopia, told France Info radio: “A tooth can tell us a whole range of things. Its shape and wear and tear tells us about the eating habits of the person in question; the tissue reveals a lot of information. The DNA can give an idea as to who this person was.”

If there’s any tartar on the tooth, they might be able to do stable isotope analysis on it to determine the ancient person’s diet.

There have been volunteers excavating the Arago Cave yearly since 1964. Thousands of people have given their time and dedication to the site for the past 50 years and they’ve been exceptionally productive. More than 600,000 prehistoric objects and remains have been unearthed since excavations began, most famously 140 bones and bone fragments from a single 450,000-year-old Homo erectus known as Tautavel Man. In a blissful historical coincidence, one of the volunteers in the 1979 excavation that unearthed a piece of Tautavel Man’s skull was Camille Jacquey’s mother.

This season only began in May and the team has already made thousands of finds. Besides unearthing the tooth, the team has been able to determine what kind of pollen and vegetation were in the area, even the source of the flint knapped by the cave’s users (it’s a site about 20 miles away). They know the area was a treeless, arid steppe around the time the individual left the tooth in the cave, cold, snowy, windblown. Researchers hope the tooth may fill in some of the missing information about the people of who navigated this harsh landscape.

Share

Five oversized Bronze Age axes found in Jutland Christmas tree farm

Sunday, July 26th, 2015

Just before Easter of this year, Christmas tree farmer Esben Arildskov asked a metal detecting friend Bent Rasmussen to survey a field on his farm in the village of Boest near Nørre Snede in Jutland, Denmark. Bronze artifacts had been found on the field before, and Arildskov wanted to be sure any historic artifacts were recovered before he cleared the area for planting. That responsible choice proved prescient. Rasmussen’s metal detector alerted to a large metal find and when he dug down, he found two large bronze axe heads. He immediately stopped digging and notified experts at the Museum Midtjylland of the find.

The two axes Rasmussen unearthed are 30 and 26 centimeters (one foot and 10 inches) long. The larger one weighs almost a full kilo (980 grams, 2.16 pounds); the smaller weighs 650 grams (1.4 pounds). Bronze Age axes are usually half this size, so the museum’s archaeologists were excited by the find. They examined the site and realized there was more to be found underneath the surface. They had to wait until after Easter to get started so on April 7th the official excavation began. Archaeologists, museum curators, journalists, neighbors and interested observers made the dig something of a party, complete with coffee and homemade cake. They had good cause to celebrate when three more oversized axes were unearthed. The axe hoard was painstakingly buried, each axe placed deliberately on top of the others inside a pit that was padded with grass.

Radiocarbon dating found the axes were made between 1,800 and 1,500 B.C., a period bridging the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. This places them among the earliest bronze artifacts ever discovered in Denmark.

Bronze axes from this era are so rare only five of them have been found before in Denmark, Sweden and northern Germany. That means the Boest find has in one fell swoop doubled the number of these Bronze Age axes in the archaeological record of northern Europe. When you consider that
Bent Rasmussen and his brother, enlisted by Bent during excavations to cover more ground with their metal detectors, found another four smaller axes and a spear tip, it’s clear that this field in Boest was an important place during the early Bronze Age.

The would-be Christmas tree lot continued its archaeological hot streak when rows of large postholes were discovered. Four parallel rows of holes so large the posts they held would have been at least the height of a man. At first archaeologists thought they might be the remains of a dwelling or a fence, but as they kept excavating they kept finding more postholes. Ultimately they were able to follow an uninterrupted path of postholes for 109 meters before it disappeared into the forest. Now they’re thinking it may have been a processional route leading to burial mounds known to be on the property. This find is unique in Danish history, more akin to the pre-stone standing structures of Avebury and Stonehenge. Archaeologists hope to be able to excavate the entire processional in the near future, but first the funding has to be secured.

At the end of April, archaeologists unearthed another treasure across the post rows and slightly to the right of the axe hoard: two gold bracelets, one gold finger ring and two flint blades. The bangles weigh 21 grams (.74 ounces) apiece while the ring weighs a massive 16 grams (.56 oz). Modern wedding rings weigh a single gram, so this ring is exceptionally heavy. The gold deposit also dates to the transitional period between the Stone and Bronze Ages.

The axes are being conserved at the Museum Midtjylland after which they will be sent to the National Museum in Copenhagen for further analysis. Museum Midtjylland hopes the axes will be available for display this summer. Esben Arildskov has accepted that he won’t be planting Christmas trees on this land anytime soon, but he’s consoled by the fact that he’s the owner of a Bronze Age ceremonial center with huge axes and gold rings the weight of 16 regular rings buried hither and yon. He, his wife Birthe Rosvig and two daughters (aged five and eight) are thrilled to have found actual treasure in their back yard.

Share

Birmingham Qur’an folio one of world’s earliest

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

A partial Qur’an manuscript in the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library has been radiocarbon dated to between 568 and 645 A.D., which makes it one of the earliest Qur’ans known to survive, perhaps even the earliest. The Prophet Muhammad lived around 570 to 632 A.D., so the sheep or goat who whose skin was used to make the parchment was his contemporary or died very soon after he did.

Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet received the revelations of the angel Gabriel in the last two decades of his life, transmitting them orally to his closest and most trusted companions who memorized them word for word. According to Sunni Islam, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and after his death the first caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, fearing that the people who memorized the scripture would die before they could pass it down, ordered the verses written down. That text was then used by the third caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan, as the basis for the definitive version of the Qur’an which was widely copied and distributed in 650 A.D., just 18 years after Muhammad died. (The Shi’ite tradition holds Uthman Ibn Affan solely responsible for collecting the revelations into a single written scripture.)

The manuscript consists of two folios with parts of Suras 18 through 20 written in a beautiful tilted Arabic script called Hijazi that is so clear it can be easily read by Arabic readers today. The pages have been in the library for decades, one of more than 3,000 of Middle Eastern manuscripts collected by Chaldean priest Alphonse Mingana in the 1920s at the behest of Edward Cadbury, chocolate magnate in a long line of chocolate magnates who, when they weren’t busy making delicious creme-filled confections, founded a consortium of colleges later absorbed by the University of Birmingham. The folios were mistakenly bound with the folios of another Qur’an written 200 years later in a very similar hand. There are no records of where Mingana acquired these particular leaves, but the parchment and script look like Qur’an fragments from the earliest mosque in Egypt (founded 642 A.D.) that are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

Dr. Alba Fedeli noticed the folios while doing research for her PhD. While the handwriting on those two pages at first glance seemed identical to that on the rest of the manuscript, she saw that the content stuck out, that it didn’t seem to fit with what came before and after. Fedeli pointed out the discrepancy to Susan Worrall, director of the library’s special collections, who decided to have them carbon dated by experts at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. They were shocked by the results.

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, said: “This is indeed an exciting discovery. We know now that these two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three Caliphs. [...]

“The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur’an required a great many of them. The carbon dating evidence, then, indicates that Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library is home to some precious survivors that – in view of the Suras included – would once have been at the centre of a Mushaf from that period. And it seems to leave open the possibility that the Uthmanic redaction took place earlier than had been thought – or even, conceivably, that these folios predate that process. In any case, this – along with the sheer beauty of the content and the surprisingly clear Hijazi script – is news to rejoice Muslim hearts.”

The folios will go on display at University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts from October 2nd through October 25th.

Share

Floor of 4,000-year-old dwelling found in Ohio

Friday, July 24th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Burrell Orchard site in Sheffield, Ohio, have discovered the floor of a dwelling built 4,000 years ago.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere in Ohio. It’s very significant, a much more significant site than we previously thought,” [excavation director Dr. Brian] Redmond said. “These are house structures. This was like a village site.”

The builders lived in what archaeologists classify as the Late Archaic period in North America, so far back that they don’t have a tribal name.

“We have no idea what they called themselves or what language they spoke,” Redmond said. “The only reason we know anything about them is archaeology.”

The floor is about three inches thick and composed of yellow clay that was dug up elsewhere and carried to the site. Features were built into the floor, among them a basin, cooking pits, storage holes that held tools and food supplies like hickory nuts. Around the perimeter of the floor are post molds, spots of decayed organic material left in post holes that once held hickory saplings. Those saplings were tied together at the top and draped with mats of woven cattails to make a proto-wigwam.

This is remarkably solid construction for nomadic hunter-gatherers. They didn’t live here permanently, but rather visited the area to hunt and forage. It must have been an excellent spot for their purposes — productive, sheltered — because they stayed there for months before moving on only to return again over and over.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History team under Dr. Redmond first explored the Burrell Orchard site in 2008 when they discovered multiple layers of middens — ancient refuse piles — under the surface. Flint flakes, broken weapons, fire-cracked rocks, butchered animal bones and the remains of many cooking pits were found in deposits as much as 1.6 feet deep. Shovel-test excavations pinpointed the perimeter of the buried midden deposit: it is more than an acre in surface area. So vast a trash collection indicates the site was used for centuries by dozens, possibly hundreds, of hunter-gatherer families as a food collecting and processing spot.

The 2008 excavation also revealed the first of post molds. Some of them appeared to be the remnants of simple structures like food drying racks, but others were found in groups of three or more, which suggests the posts were used to make a more elaborate structure. They found layers of yellow-brown clay as well. While similar clay layers at archaeological sites in Illinois and Kentucky were found to be the floors of Late Archaic homes, at first the team thought the yellow clay might just be the natural subsoil underlying the middens. Digging underneath the layer revealed prehistoric artifacts, however, so either the clay was backdirt dug up from nearby pits that sank into the natural subsoil, or it was deliberately placed there to act as a floor or working surface. Now we know it’s the latter.

In 2014, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Archaeology in Action program began excavations at the Burrell Orchard site to follow up on the post molds and clay found in 2008. One of the excavation pits found the yellow clay layer with an arc of post molds following the edge of the clay that penetrate through the layer. When they returned this year, they scanned the field with Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and found a section that generated a very similar signal to the one caused by the 2014 floor discovery. The excavation turned up the same kinds of materials — flint flakes, fire-cracked rock, burned animal bones, burned soil, charcoal — found in the shallower layers of the 2014 find. Then the team struck gold: the yellow clay layer, this one less deep than the one from the year before. A core sample them revealed there was a second yellow clay layer at the same depth as the one found in 2014. It looks like the Late Archaic people using the site constructed a dwelling over the floor of an older one, which makes sense when you’re returning to the same spot for generations.

Dr. Redmond has blogged about the 2014 and 2105 excavations on the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s website. I suggest reading the entries chronologically to follow the discoveries as they were made.

Share

Sharp flint dug cavity out of tooth 14,000 years ago

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

Researchers have found the earliest known evidence of dentistry in the molar of a Palaeolithic man who lived between 13,820 and 14,160 years ago. The young man, who was around 25 years old at the time of death, had a cavity removed with a sharp flint, beating the dental work previously thought to be the oldest (a molar found in a Neolithic graveyard in Pakistan that was perforated by a bow drill) by 5,000 years.

The skeleton was found in the Ripari Villabruna rock shelter in the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy in 1988. The skeletal remains had been laid to rest in a shallow grave along with what were probably the hunter’s most prized possessions: a flint knife, a hammer stone, a flint blade and a piece of sharpened bone. Stones decorated with red ochre marked the burial mound. The bones were in usually good condition and a large cavity in his lower right third molar was noticed at the time, but the attempted treatment was not visible to the naked eye. It was only when researchers recently examined the molar with a scanning electron microscope (SEM) that they realized the cavity was signficantly larger than the decayed tissue and that there were striations and chips on the walls of the cavity even in the most inaccessible parts of the tooth.

The striations look like tiny versions of cut marks on bone. The research team experimented with sharpened wood, bone and flint points on the enamel of three molars and confirmed that the striations and enamel chipping on the cavity walls were made before death by pointed stone tool scratching and digging into the lesion. That means someone took a very small, very sharp tool, probably a flint, and dug out as much of the decay as they could. The striations go on in all different directions so the cavedentist really got down in there, changing angles and positions to clean out the rotted parts. The pain and difficulty of this procedure suggests that the dangers of tooth decay were known in the Late Upper Palaeolithic.

Evidence of Palaeolithic concern for dental hygiene has been found before. They were known to use toothpicks made of bone or wood to clean food particles stuck between their teeth, but this is the first evidence of treatment of tooth decay. It’s the first evidence of surgical intervention period.

The find represents the oldest archaeological example of an operative manual intervention on a pathological condition, according to researchers led by Stefano Benazzi, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Bologna.

“It predates any undisputed evidence of dental and cranial surgery, currently represented by dental drillings and cranial trephinations dating back to the Mesolithic-Neolithic period, about 9,000-7,000 years ago,” Benazzi said.

You can read the full study here (pdf).

Share

Mayan hieroglyphic stele found in Guatemala

Saturday, July 18th, 2015

Archaeologists from the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project have discovered Mayan hieroglyphic stone panels (pdf) at the archaeological sites of La Corona and El Achiotal in Western Petén, Guatemala, that lend new insight into important periods of Mayan history.

La Corona was occupied in the Maya Classic period (Classic period (c. 250–900 A.D.) while El Achiotal, a smaller site 12 miles east of La Corona, was occupied earlier, in the Late Preclassic and Early Classic between 400 B.C. and 550 A.D. Both sites, which are about 12 miles away from each other in the dense Petén jungle, have been heavily preyed upon by looters who left deep trenches and tunnels in almost all of the buildings, but archaeologists have only recently reached the remote area. For 40 years it was known from the plethora of looted stone panels in museums, galleries and collections all over the world as the mysterious Site Q. Mayanist Ian Graham and University of Texas at Austin epigrapher David Stuart finally found Site Q in 1997 and named it La Corona after its ring of five temples that resemble a crown. The discovery of a hieroglyphic stone panel in 2005 that was made of identical stone and had identical content to Site Q monuments confirmed La Corona’s identity.

That discovery led to the creation of the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project, co-directed by Marcello Canuto of Tulane University (discover of the 2005 panel) and Tomás Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, in 2008. Its aim was to recontextualize the looted artifacts, Since then, the Project has been excavating La Corona and environs, establishing a permanent camp, involving residents in creating a long-term plan to protect this center of ancient lowland Maya civilization from looters, poachers and illegal settlers who burn the jungle to make pasture land for cattle. Despite the destruction wrought by looters, archaeologists have made momentous discoveries, including a hieroglyphic staircase in 2012 that documented 200 years of Maya history and referred to the December 21st date that made so many people freak out about the so-called Mayan apocalypse that year.

What the excavations have found is that La Corona, a very small city compared to the great Mayan powers like Calakmul and Tikal, had a disproportionately high number and quality of stone inscriptions. Like El Perú-Waka’, La Corona was a key city on the essential trade route from Calakmul (in modern-day Mexico) through the Mayan lowlands to its southern allies. It therefore had close ties to Calakmul — generations of Calakmul Snake dynasty princesses married lords of La Corona — access to the best scribes and artisans, and, coincidentally, a rich source of limestone all of which combined to give rise to a unique carving tradition. While the inscriptions found at other small Mayan cities tend to focus on local history and rulers, La Corona’s also detail the history of people and places far outside of its boundaries, including important city-states that are not mentioned anywhere else in the epigraphic record.

The newly discovered panels fit neatly into this tradition. They are extremely high quality carvings and describe people and events described nowhere else. In La Corona, two stele in excellent condition were found embedded in a wall in the palace on the main plaza. They had originally been installed elsewhere in the city, possibly a temple, and were later reset in a masonry bench near the northeast corner of the palace. One, depicting a Calakmul king mid-dance, dates to 702 A.D. The other is a grid of glyphics from the late 7th century that describes the deeds of a ruler of La Corona named Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk.

The panel inscriptions tell fascinating stories of rituals of kingly accession that involve travel, costuming, dancing, invocation of gods and reverence of ancestors. Stuart, who also deciphered the panels, states: “The gorgeous hieroglyphs give us new insights about the ceremonies that led up to a new king being crowned. And they fill important gaps we had in La Corona’s rich history.”

David Stuart has written a fascinating blog entry about the glyphs on the La Corona panels here.

At El Achiotal, researchers found two pieces of a 5th century stela placed in a shrine in a building in the central plaza. They had also been moved in antiquity from their original site to the enclosed shrine. The panel was already broken when the pieces were installed in the shrine and El Achiotal residents left offerings to it for generations, underscoring its cultural importance. Although broken, the carving and stone are in such good condition that much of the original red paint is intact.

Expert epigrapher David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin estimated the stela’s date to be November 22, A.D. 418. “This was a time of great political upheaval in the central Maya area, when a Teotihuacan warrior-ruler named Siyaj K’ahk’ arrived in A.D. 378 and set up a new political order centered at Tikal. It seems that the Achiotal king came to power shortly after that time” says Stuart.

So, besides individual accolades, this stela places the long reign and accomplishments of El Achiotal’s king into a larger historical framework. “Based on parallels known from other sites, we think that this stela relates to this watershed event in Maya history — the installation, in the Maya lowlands, of a foreign power that can ultimately be traced to Teotihuacan. Indeed, although details of this event remain murky, this stela provides another piece of the Maya historical puzzle,” says Canuto.

Share

Linen with cartouche of Cleopatra’s father found

Friday, July 17th, 2015

The Polish Archaeological Mission team has been excavating the ancient site of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, a Pharaonic necropolis in what is today Luxor that was converted into a hermitage by Coptic monks in the 6th century, for more than a decade. The Mission’s aim is to explore how the ancient structures were reused, how objects and materials migrated from original burials to secondary burials to other locations in the Theban necropolis. This season’s work from February 5th to March 1st explored objects from the Coptic hermitage, for instance the large number of wine amphorae found that archaeologists believe were used to transport water to the hermitage and once emptied were used by the monks to store goods like ochre that they could sell to support themselves, and the shaft of a tomb from the Pharaonic period.

The Mission has for several seasons explored two Middle Kingdom (2055 B.C. – 1650 B.C.) tombs destined for high-ranking courtiers of an unknown pharaoh (possibly Mentuhotep IV) whose tomb complex was constructed in the neighboring valley in the late 11th or early 12th Dynasty. The tombs in the hillside around the pharaonic funerary complex were in a privileged position and reserved for important dignitaries. This year the team focused on the shaft of tomb MMA 1152 which was first excavated by the French Mission at Deir el-Medina in the early 1920s. There are no notes or documentation of any kind surviving from that excavation.

The shaft, which is 18 meters (59 feet) long, has been exposed ever since. To explore the shaft safely, the Polish Archaeological Mission installed a wooden structure over the outlet to allow quick vertical transportation of people and materials and used the latest and greatest mountaineering equipment. At the bottom of the shaft is a corridor five and a half feet wide that descends diagonally eastward for 4.6 meters (15 feet) ending in another vertical shaft. Next season archaeologists plan to explore the second shaft in the hopes that it might lead to a burial chamber.

Meanwhile, the excavation of the bottom of the shaft, the corridor and a niche on the north wall of the shaft unearthed fragments of limestone, flint, mud bricks, ceramics from the Pharaonic and Coptic eras, pieces of wood, including coffin fragments, pieces of cartonnage, rope, faience beads and amulets, clay ushabti figurines, textile fragments from shrouds and mummification bandages. Human and animal bones were also found. The finds indicate the tomb was reused for burials in the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period and extensively robbed after that.

The star find is a piece of linen with hieroglyphics written on it in ink. There are two columns of text that include the cartouche of Ptolemy XII Auletes (80-51 B.C.), father of Queen Cleopatra, last queen of Egypt, seventh of her name but the only one to make it immortal. A third column text, thought to be a 3rd century addition, includes the name and epithets of the goddess Isis.

According to the researchers, the piece of cloth was a velum, a curtain covering a holy image (perhaps a statue representing a deity) in the nearby temple of Hathor, located near Deir el-Medina — a village of artisans who worked on the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, including the tomb of Tutankhamun.

“Velum was probably Ptolemy XII’s gift to the deity. Pharaoh undoubtedly contributed to the splendour of the sanctuary. His cartouches are, amongst others, on the gate of the temple, which clearly indicates the ruler’s involvement in its creation” – added Dr. [Andrzej Ćwiek, Deputy Head of Mission].

Archaeologists believe the velum was foraged by the Coptic monks in the ruins of the temple and took it back to the hermitage as a potentially useful thing. It was probably discarded down the shaft. Other refuse from the Coptic period of occupation, mainly pottery fragments, was also found in the shaft.

Share

Rare Roman frescoes found in Arles

Monday, July 13th, 2015

Excavation of a Roman villa in the Trinquetaille district of Arles has unearthed extremely rare Roman frescoes from the 1st century B.C. still in brilliant color and still attached in large parts to the walls. The frescoes are done in the Second Style, the second of four phases of mural art defined by 19th century archaeologist August Mau based on the frescoes excavated in Pompeii and environs. Works in the Second Pompeian Style date to the first century B.C. and were particularly popular in the second half of the century. The Arles murals date to between 70 and 20 B.C., which means they were the height of fashion (and expense) when they were painted.

The villa is on the site of an 18th century glassworks on the right bank of the Rhône river. The glassworks building, a rare survival of pre-Industrial Revolution manufacturing, is being restored while the larger property is slated for redevelopment. The remains of a Roman residential neighborhood inhabited from the 1st century B.C. through the 5th century A.D. had been found under a hectare of the glassworks’ site in the 80s, including a large domus destroyed by fire in 260 A.D. whose elaborate mosaic floors in opus sectile are now in the Museum of Ancient Arles.

Preventative excavations began on the site in 2013. The first frescoes were discovered in 2014 in a bedroom of the villa. The room was divided into two areas, one for the bed, the other an antechamber, their demarcation clearly defined not by walls and separators, but by the frescoes themselves. The frescoes feature contrasting colors and designs. A trompe l’oeil podium in faux yellow marble with red veining is painted at the base of the walls and unifies both spaces. In the antechamber, the podium supports large yellow columns; in the bed alcove, rich faux marble veneers.

This year’s excavation of an adjacent state room revealed even more extensive and precious artwork: trompe l’oeil columns against background of bright vermilion red, a luxury pigment used in the famous frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. Between the columns are various characters, probably mythological, seated on pedestals. The figures are between 1/2 and 3/4 life-sized and the quality of the painting, their artfully draped clothing and the richness of the pigments, indicate they were painted by artists from a top-of-the-line workshop, almost certainly in Italy. Only the figure of a woman playing a stringed instrument has been found sufficiently intact to recognize the subject, but some elements suggest there may have been a Pan figure in the composition which would make it a Bacchus-themed painting, a very popular motif for Roman murals. Archaeologists hope the many fresco fragments found in situ can be puzzled back together and the full scene identified, but it’s going to take a while because they have 12,000 boxes of fragments.

Second Style frescoes in France have been found almost exclusively in the south of France, the former Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis, but very few and only fragments of them. Evidence of Second Style characters, as opposed to trompe l’oeil architectural features, has only been found before in the fragments of a single fresco in Narbonne. The Arles frescoes are so rich and so complete as to be entirely unique in France. Hell, there are less than a dozen of Second Style figural frescoes extant in Italy.

Paintings of this significance and enormous expense decorated the public rooms of the homes of the ruling elite of the city. They were meant to convey the wealth, sophistication and reach of the homeowner to his guests and clients. The villa may have belonged to a high-ranking Gaul keen to assimilate the Roman lifestyle, or to a Roman potentate keen to recreate the comforts of home. After the city supported him in the civil war, Julius Caesar showered Arles with riches, much of them stripped from rival Marseilles which had backed the wrong horse in Pompey. Caesar colonized Arles with veterans of his loyal legion Legio VI Ferrata, but this house was too rich for most veterans’ blood. This was the domicile of a big shot, a politician and/or businessman.

Once reassembled, the full frescoes will go on display at the Museum of Ancient Arles. You probably won’t have to wait a decade or more for conservators to painstakingly jigsaw together thousands of fragments before seeing the murals, however. Curators are hoping to exhibit some of the larger pieces temporarily alongside the museum’s treasured bust of Julius Caesar, which was fished out of the Rhône in 2008 and is the oldest known life-sized bust of him ever discovered. It dates to 46 B.C., two years before Caesar was assassinated, and very unusually depicts him realistically aged.

Share

Inscription found mentioning last Thracian kings

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Roman site of Aquae Calidae in Burgas on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast discovered a marble slab with an inscription mentioning the last monarchs of the Sapaean dynasty, the last family to rule the ancient Odrysian kingdom of Thrace. The Greek inscription was carved between 26 and 37 A.D., a decade or two before Thrace ceased being a Roman client state in 46 A.D. and was absorbed into the Roman Empire as the province of Thracia.

The inscribed marble appears to be a dedication. It refers to a sanctuary to Demeter built by Apollonius Eptaikentus, strategos (military governor) of the city and region of region under the Sapaean King Rhoemetalces II. The slab was in all likelihood part of the sanctuary complex and archaeologists hope remains of it may still be found in Aquae Calidae, only 10% of which has been excavated.

The inscription lists the names of the last three kings of Odrysian Thrace and their dynastic connections. It is the first source to note the names of the children of Rhoemetalces II (r. 18-38 A.D.) and his sister Pythodoris II (r. 38–46 A.D.). It also confirms a previously uncertain familial link: that Pythodoris II was the daughter of King Cotys III (r. 12-18 A.D.), the son of Rhoemetalces I (r. 12 B.C. – 12 A.D.). Cotys III was killed by his uncle Rhescuporis II, so that means Pythodoris II, who married her cousin Rhoemetalces III, was wedded to the son of her father’s assassin. Surprising no one, she had her husband killed in 46 A.D. We don’t know what happened to her, but Rome took swift advantage of the power vacuum after Rhoemetalces III’s death and secured itself a new province.

This is important information about people for whom we have mainly numismatic evidence. The ancient sources are a bit thin on this time period, although Tacitus goes into some detail in Book Two of The Annals on how Augustus and Tiberius divided and conquered Thrace after the death of Rhoemetalces I. Pardon the long blockquote, but it’s such a delicious taste of the devious machinations of empire-building that I can’t resist including the whole story.

Tiberius … planned a crafty scheme against Rhescuporis, king of Thrace. That entire country had been in the possession of Rhoemetalces, after whose death Augustus assigned half to the king’s brother Rhescuporis, half to his son Cotys. In this division the cultivated lands, the towns, and what bordered on Greek territories, fell to Cotys; the wild and barbarous portion, with enemies on its frontier, to Rhescuporis. The kings too themselves differed, Cotys having a gentle and kindly temper, the other a fierce and ambitious spirit, which could not brook a partner. Still at first they lived in a hollow friendship, but soon Rhescuporis overstepped his bounds and appropriated to himself what had been given to Cotys, using force when he was resisted, though somewhat timidly under Augustus, who having created both kingdoms would, he feared, avenge any contempt of his arrangement. When however he heard of the change of emperor, he let loose bands of freebooters and razed the fortresses, as a provocation to war.

Nothing made Tiberius so uneasy as an apprehension of the disturbance of any settlement. He commissioned a centurion to tell the kings not to decide their dispute by arms. Cotys at once dismissed the forces which he had prepared. Rhescuporis, with assumed modesty, asked for a place of meeting where, he said, they might settle their differences by an interview. There was little hesitation in fixing on a time, a place, finally on terms, as every point was mutually conceded and accepted, by the one out of good nature, by the other with a treacherous intent. Rhescuporis, to ratify the treaty, as he said, further proposed a banquet; and when their mirth had been prolonged far into the night, and Cotys amid the feasting and the wine was unsuspicious of danger, he loaded him with chains, though he appealed, on perceiving the perfidy, to the sacred character of a king, to the gods of their common house, and to the hospitable board. Having possessed himself of all Thrace, he wrote word to Tiberius that a plot had been formed against him, and that he had forestalled the plotter. Meanwhile, under pretext of a war against the Bastarnian and Scythian tribes, he was strengthening himself with fresh forces of infantry and cavalry.

He received a conciliatory answer. If there was no treachery in his conduct, he could rely on his innocence, but neither the emperor nor the Senate would decide on the right or wrong of his cause without hearing it. He was therefore to surrender Cotys, come in person and transfer from himself the odium of the charge.

This letter Latinius Pandus, proprietor of Moesia, sent to Thrace, with soldiers to whose custody Cotys was to be delivered. Rhescuporis, hesitating between fear and rage, preferred to be charged with an accomplished rather than with an attempted crime. He ordered Cotys to be murdered and falsely represented his death as self-inflicted. Still the emperor did not change the policy which he had once for all adopted. On the death of Pandus, whom Rhescuporis accused of being his personal enemy, he appointed to the government of Moesia Pomponius Flaccus, a veteran soldier, specially because of his close intimacy with the king and his consequent ability to entrap him.

Flaccus on arriving in Thrace induced the king by great promises, though he hesitated and thought of his guilty deeds, to enter the Roman lines. He then surrounded him with a strong force under pretence of showing him honour, and the tribunes and centurions, by counsel, by persuasion, and by a more undisguised captivity the further he went, brought him, aware at last of his desperate plight, to Rome. He was accused before the Senate by the wife of Cotys, and was condemned to be kept a prisoner far away from his kingdom. Thrace was divided between his son Rhœmetalces, who, it was proved, had opposed his father’s designs, and the sons of Cotys. As these were still minors, Trebellienus Rufus, an ex-praetor, was appointed to govern the kingdom in the meanwhile, after the precedent of our ancestors who sent Marcus Lepidus into Egypt as guardian to Ptolemy’s children. Rhescuporis was removed to Alexandria, and there attempting or falsely charged with attempting escape, was put to death.

I love Tacitus’ scepticism of his sources. He’s totally on my “who would you invite to dinner” fantasy list.

Aquae Calidae, a sanctuary and spa resort in the 1st century (its name means hot waters), has been excavated for the past six years. The digs have been funded by the city of Burgas as part of the construction of new sewage and water systems for the neighboring districts and so that the Aquae Calidae site can be partially restored it to make it an attractive destination for cultural heritage tourism. The discovery of the inscription will likely spur additional excavations in the attempt to find the sanctuary of Demeter as well as other remains, like an early Christian church, artifacts suggest may still be slumbering under the surface.

Share

2,000 Bronze Age gold spirals found in Denmark

Friday, July 10th, 2015

An unprecedented cache 2,000 gold spirals from the Bronze Age has been discovered in a field near the town of Boeslunde on the Danish island of Zealand. Bronze Age spirals have been found before — gold ones in the Syke hoard in Germany, for example, and bronze ones in Poland — but these are the first to be discovered in Denmark.

The spirals are made of very thin, very pure, flat gold thread just 0.1 millimeter thick and up to three centimeters (1.18 inches) long. Some of the spirals are complete at up to three centimeters long; some are in small fragments. All totalled, the gold weight of the spirals is between 200 and 300 grams (7-10 ounces). Two gilded fibulae found with the spirals date the find to 900-700 B.C.

In 2013, metal detectorists Christian Albertsen and his uncle Hans Henrik Hansen found four gold bangles, so-called oath rings, in the same Boeslunde field. Six other gold oath rings had been unearthed in the field earlier (each individually at different times, not as part of a hoard) and in the 1800s local farmers found a group of six elaborately decorated gold bowls, two of which have incredibly thin gold wire wound around elongated handles crafted to look like stylized dragons. The total weight of the 10 oath rings found in Boeslunde is 3.5 kilos (7.7 pounds). The set of bowls weighs another kilo (2.2 pounds). That makes Boeslunde the richest gold field of the Northern European Bronze Age, and there may well be more to find.

It was the oath ring discovery that spurred the discovery of the spirals. After the bangles were found, the West Zealand Museum undertook an excavation of the field. It was a small search area — only a few square meters of soil were dug up — and archaeologists found a small group of three or four spiral fragments bundled together. Christian Albertsen, the finder of the oath rings who was assisting in the dig, brought one of the spirals to a jeweler. He confirmed that it was made of gold, not brass, so the Zealand Museum decided to dig again in the same spot, this time enlisting the aid of experts from the National Museum of Denmark.

During this second excavation archaeologists made the bulk of the find: a large pile of gold coils. Underneath and around the pile were shards of a grey-black material. Analysis in the National Museum’s lab identified these black chunks as birch bark tar, a substance used by prehistoric peoples, including the Neanderthals, as an all-purpose adhesive starting 80,000 years ago. The copper axe found with the 5,300-year-old iceman Otzi was hafted with birch bark tar. The tar chunks found under the spirals bore the imprint of a flat wooden surface on one side of the flakes and the imprint of animal skin on the other, which indicates the tar was used to glue a leather lining into a wooden box. Archaeologists think the spirals were placed inside a jewelry box or dress chest before being buried in the Boeslunde field.

It’s not clear how the coils were used or for what purpose. Given the high quantity of sacrificed gold found in the field, the location may have held ritual importance.

Flemming Kaul from the National Museum also believes that the area had some sort of religious significance as a place where Bronze Age worshippers carried out rituals and sacrifices to the higher powers.

“Maybe the priest king had a golden bracelet around his wrist, and the gold spirals adorned his cape or his hat, where during rituals they shone like the sun. The sun was one of the holy symbols in the Bronze Age and gold was presumably seen as having some sort of particular magic power. It is colored like the sun, it shines like the sun, and because gold lasts forever, it was also seen as containing some of the Sun’s power,” Kaul said.

The Zealand Museum and the National Museum plan to continue to excavate the site in cooperation with amateur archaeologists/metal detectorists like Christian Albertsen who has been so instrumental in the momentous discoveries made in Boeslunde. The gold spirals will be on display at an open house at the Skaelskor City Museum on Wednesday, July 15th. Visitors will be able to enjoy the shiny pretty things and hear curator Kirsten Christensen speak about their discovery.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

August 2015
S M T W T F S
« Jul    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication