Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The great find and great loss of Childeric’s treasure

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Childeric I was the king of the Salian Franks from 457 until his death in 481/2 A.D., and the father of Clovis I, the man who would unite the Frankish tribes under his rulership and become the first of the Merovingian kings of France. Childeric established a capital at Tournai on lands he had received as a foederatus (a military ally who received money and lands in exchange for fighting for Rome) in what was then the province of Belgica Secunda.

Clovis moved the capital to Paris and over time the location of his father’s tomb was lost. It was rediscovered on May 27th, 1653, by one Adrien Quinquin who was doing some work on the church of Saint-Brice when his shovel suddenly turned up a cache of gold coins. Further excavation revealed a tomb full of treasures, among them a throwing axe, a spear, a long sword called a spatha and a short scramasax with scabbard, both richly ornamented with gold and garnet cloisonné, a solid gold torc bracelet, part of an iron horseshoe with nails still in it, belt and shoe buckles and horse harness fittings also decorated in cloisonné gold and garnets, a leather purse containing more than a hundred gold and silver coins, the most recent bearing the image of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno (474-491 A.D.), a gold bull’s head with a solar disc on its forehead, a crystal ball and a gold signet ring.

The signet ring was the proverbial smoking gun that identified the tomb as Childeric’s. It’s a heavy gold ring 27mm (one inch) in diameter (Childeric had some large fingers). On top is an oval bezel bearing the effigy of a beardless man with long hair parted in the center. He wears a paludamentum (a draped cloak fastened at one shoulder worn by Roman military leaders and emperors in statuary and on coinage) and holds a spear in his right hand. Around the head is the inscription CHILDERICI REGIS (Childeric King).

More than 300 golden bees with red glass wings were also found that are thought to have adorned Childeric’s ceremonial cloak. Centuries later, when Napoleon Bonaparte was about to be crowned Emperor of the French, he turned to the most ancient French monarch for iconography that would connect him to royal history while bypassing the still-loathed Bourbons and their fleur-de-lys. Napoleon adopted Childeric’s heraldry as his own. His coronation robe was embroidered with 300 gold bees and bees became the symbol of the new French Empire.

When Childeric’s treasure was discovered, Tournai was part of the Spanish Netherlands, governed by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, younger brother of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III. The bulk of Childeric’s grave goods (there was much pilfering, apparently, during the dig) went to the Archduke who had the great good sense to order his physician Jean-Jacques Chifflet to document every piece thoroughly. Chifflet’s meticulous study, complete with extremely detailed engravings of the artifacts, was published in 1655 as Anastasis Childerici I. Francorvm Regis, sive Thesavrvs Sepvlchralis Tornaci Neruiorum (The Resurrection of Childeric the First, King of the Franks, or the Funerary Treasure of Tournai of the Nervians). Dependant on ancient sources and comparisons with other artifacts, Chifflet made some errors and misidentified some of the pieces, but his careful recording of every object is today considered the first scientific archaeological publication before there was such a thing as archaeological science.

Archduke Leopold brought Childeric’s treasure with him to Vienna when he left the Spanish Netherlands in 1656. Upon his death in 1662, he bequeathed his extensive gallery of art and artifacts, including Childeric’s grave goods, to his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. In 1665, Leopold I gifted the Childeric treasure to King Louis XIV in gratitude for his military aid against the Ottoman Empire in Hungary the year before. Louis, reportedly unimpressed by the 5th century version of luxury goods, had them stored in his Cabinet of Medals in the Louvre palace. After the French Revolution, Childeric’s treasure became part of the Cabinet of Medals of the Imperial Library, later the Royal Library, now the National Library.

During the night of November 5th 1831, thieves broke into the Cabinet of Medals of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and stole more than 2,000 gold objects for a total weight of 80 kilos, including all of Childeric’s treasure. Accounts of what happened afterwards differ because many of the records were destroyed during the Paris Commune of 1871. Either a couple of suspects were arrested within a few days of the theft and refused to talk leaving the police to search for the treasures for 8 months, or the police searched 8 months before finding the culprits and what was left of the treasure. Whichever way it went, the theft was a huge scandal and the police were under great pressure to come up with results. They even enlisted the aid of the legendary Eugène-François Vidocq, head of the Sûreté, Paris’ first-of-its-kind plainclothes detective bureau that he had founded in 1812. Vidocq had quit in 1827 but was reappointed head of the Sûreté in early 1832 and he and his team were on the Childeric case.

(They were on a lot of other cases at the same time, like ruthlessly suppressing the June Rebellion in Paris after the death from cholera of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was set against the backdrop of this rebellion and Vidocq was the inspiration for Javert. He was the inspiration for Valjean as well, believe it or not, because he had been a criminal in his youth, done hard labour in the galleys of Brest, escaped, been caught, escaped again, got caught again, did more time before finally turning his particular set of skills to the aid of law enforcement by becoming an informant. He parlayed that into undercover detective work. Under him, the Sûreté was staffed by convicts operating under the it-takes-one-to-know-one premise. It was highly effective. Crime rates in Paris dropped 40% after the Sûreté began doing its thing. Vidocq was also the inspiration for the character of C. Auguste Dupin in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the first detective story.)

Anyway, eight months after the theft, the police busted a gang of thieves and found 20 ingots of gold in their hideout. Upon interrogation the thieves admitted they had melted down the pure gold objects into ingots while those with inlaid stones or that were harder to melt down for whatever reason were put in sacs of leather and immersed in the Seine either at the Pont Marie or the Pont de la Tournelle. (The bridges are in the same spot on the Seine. The Pont Marie connects the Île Saint-Louis to the Right Bank; the Pont de la Tournelle is its mirror, connecting the island to the Left Bank.) When the police dragged the river, they found eight bags holding around 1,500 pieces of the 2,000 stolen, 75 of the 80 kilos. Added to the ingot weight, the recovered objects were determined to be the entirety of the burgled treasure and the case was closed. In January of 1833, three of the thieves were convicted of the crime. One was sentenced to 40 years in prison, one to 20 years, one to 10.

Devastatingly, Childeric’s treasure was almost entirely lost. Authorities recovered two coins, two bees and the gold and garnet cloisonné fittings from Childeric’s sword and scramasax. The signet ring was gone, only surviving as reproductions made by the Habsburgs and in imprints taken of the seal. Chifflet’s recorded data and illustrations are virtually all that remains of this historic treasure

One of the recovered artifacts from the 1831 theft at the Bibliothèque Nationale is actually in the United States right now. The Rennes patera, an early 3rd century Roman shallow libation bowl made of no less than three pounds of very pure solid 23-carat gold, somehow survived being melted down in the thieves’ initial orgy of ingot production. It was loaned by National Library to the Getty Villa in Malibu for the Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville exhibition and will be in California through August 17th before returning to Paris.

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Ancient footprint found in tile at Vindolanda

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

The Roman fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland one mile south of Hadrian’s Wall, the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire, is renowned for the great number of organic artifacts preserved for 2,000 years in its anaerobic soil. The Romans built nine forts on the site, each time demolishing buildings and covering them with clay and turf. This capped the old layers and ensured the wood, leather, textiles and other organic remains trapped in them would survive in exquisite condition. The hundreds of wooden writing tablets from the late 1st, early 2nd century A.D. were voted Britain’s top treasure by British Museum curators for a 2003 BBC program, propelled by their immense social historical significance past the likes of the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the Lewis Chessmen. The tablets were found only in one section of the fort. Leather shoes, on the other hand, have turned up all over the site. There are more than 6,000 of them, many perfectly intact, forming the major part of the largest collection of Roman leather in the world. The Vindolanda Museum has a wall of ancient shoes on display.

What it hasn’t had until now was a print of one of the feet those shoes once shod. Mel Benard, a Classical Studies student at the University of Western Ontario’s Vindolanda Field School who has been volunteering this digging season, unearthed a clay tile bearing the very clear partial imprint of a human foot on its surface. It was June 25th and this was the first artifact she found. The print is of a the ball and four toes of a small right foot probably belonging to an adolescent. The youth traipsed across the tile while it was drying in around 160-180 A.D.

Animal prints have been found embedded in tiles fairly often at the fort. In fact, the Vindolanda Field School team unearthed a tile with cat or dog print (I vote dog; those big toe pads and claws look far more doggy than catty) just two days before Benard’s discovery. Human animals aren’t as likely to run across wet tiles and incur the dreadful wrath of the tile-maker.

“This find is really extraordinary”, explains Co-Director of the University Field School, Dr Elizabeth Greene, “it brings full circle the story that Vindolanda has to tell. The thousands of leather shoes from this site (over 6,000) give us a unique perspective on the people who lived at Vindolanda but this footprint highlights even more that archaeology has the potential to illuminate the lives of otherwise voiceless individuals from antiquity”.

Once the tile has been conserved, it will go on display in the Vindolanda Museum, a rare honor that Mel Benard and her teammates feel keenly. “Finding something which would be considered special enough to go on display in the Vindolanda museum with all the other amazing artefacts was one of the ambitions of the Field School, we are all absolutely thrilled.”

You can and should follow the blog of the Vindolanda Field School here. They post recaps of their excavations almost daily and include some great photographs. I hadn’t heard of iron pan, a road-building technique that combines characterstic Roman ingenuity and lack of squeamishness, until I read about it in this post.

When I was troweling the road I noticed a lot of iron in the ground and bone coming out from it. Andy, director of excavations told me it was called iron pan. This was the reason why the road was held together so well. Iron pan is a process that was caused by the Romans pouring animal blood and bones on their roads. This causes iron to build up between the cracks and create a kind of metallic mortar.

I’m officially obsessed.

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5,500-year-old fingerprint found on ceramic vessel

Saturday, June 27th, 2015

It’s time to add another bullet point of to the list of exceptional artifacts discovered by the archaeological excavation in advance of the construction of the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel on the island of Lolland, Denmark. There was the flint dagger with intact bark handle in October 2014, the 5,000-year-old gillnets and human footprints a month later, the flint axe with the intact wood handle 10 days after that and just last month they unearthed a Stone Age wood and bone eel fishing spear. Now Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologists have discovered a ceramic vessel bearing the fingerprint of the potter that made it 5,500 years ago.

Discovered just east of the harbour town of Rødbyhavn on the same site where the intact flint axe was found, the vessel is an important in and of itself. It’s a funnel beaker, a pot with a flat base and a funnel-shaped neck that was so ubiquitous among the earliest farmers in Denmark that the period in which they were in use, the Funnel Beaker Culture (4,000 – 2,800 B.C.), was named after them. The funnel beakers from the early part of the period are simply decorated, but as potters gained experience in the technology, ornamentation got more elaborate. The beaker found on Lolland is from the late Funnel Beaker period and is decorated with an extensive pattern of small wedged dashes. A variety of tools were used to create the decorations, sometimes even fingers, but this is the first time a fingerprint has been found on a funnel beaker.

The beaker was found in large pieces, one of three funnel beakers unearthed at the site which were probably deliberately left as votive offerings. The axe was embedded in the seashore in a vertical position — not a likely posture had it just been discarded without a care — along with dozens of other artifacts from wooden candlesticks to spears and hundreds of animal bones. The vessels were likely deposited whole with food or drink inside. Over time the contents were lost and the ceramic broken.

After they were excavated, the beaker pieces were sent to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen for conservation. It was there upon close study that experts spotted the precious fingerprint.

“The fragile fingerprint, left unintentionally, is an anonymous, yet very personal signature, which somehow brings us a bit closer to the prehistoric people and their actions,” [Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologist Line Marie] Olesen said.

Last year the same archaeological survey unearthed 5,000-year-old footprints left by people who attempted to save parts of their fishing system before it was flooded and covered in sand.

“An unknown persons gallery is gradually developing before our eyes, of the people who lived by Lolland’s southern coast at the time when agriculture was introduced some 6,000 years ago,” Anne-Lotte Sjørup Mathiesen of the Museum Lolland-Falster, said in a statement.

The beaker and fingerprint are still being studied at the National Museum. The vessel is expected to return to the Museum Lolland-Falster in December after which it will be put on display next to its brethren artifacts from the Rødbyhavn excavation.

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Bronze Age gold sun disc on display for first time

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

A gold sun disc discovered in an early Bronze Age grave in 1947 went on public display Friday for the first time in its history. The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes celebrated the Summer Solstice by adding the gold circle about the size of a penny that represents the sun to its permanent exhibition of prehistoric artifacts.

The sun disc is one of only six of its kind ever found in Britain. It was unearthed from a burial mound at Monkton Farleigh in 1947 along with some flint arrowheads, a pottery beaker and pieces of the skeletal remains of an adult male. The grave was discovered by dowser and author Guy Underwood who believed dowsing could be used to locate archaeologically significant sites and whose studies of the alignment of prehistoric British sites evolved into theories about earth energy patterns that would be published after his death in The Pattern of the Past.

Monkton Farleigh is 24 miles or so northwest of Stonehenge and the sun disc dates to around 2,400 B.C. which is about the time when the great sarsen stones were arranged in a circle at Stonehenge (between 2,600-2,400 B.C.). Both the stone circle and the sun disc are connected to ancient solar worship.

The sun-disk is a thin embossed sheet of gold with a cross at the centre, surrounded by a circle. Between the lines of both the cross and the circle are fine dots which glint in sunlight. The disc is pierced by two holes that may have been used to sew the disc to a piece of clothing or a head-dress, and may have been used in pairs.

After its discovery in the 1940s, the sun disc was kept by the property owner (that sort of thing wouldn’t fly today because ancient precious metals would be considered treasure and by law property of the Crown) Dr. Denis Whitehead. After almost 70 years squirreled away — it wasn’t shown to an actual archaeologist until 2013 — the sun disc was donated to the Wiltshire Museum in memory of Dr. Whitehead.

The Wiltshire Museum has a new Prehistoric Wiltshire gallery that includes the gold artifacts unearthed in 1808 from a grave at Bush Barrow one kilometer (.6 miles) south of Stonehenge, most famously a lozenge-shaped sheet of gold about seven inches long incised with geometric decorations that was found on the breastbone of the deceased. The Bush Barrow artifacts — a gold belt buckle, a second much smaller gold lozenge, three copper daggers, a bronze ax, a bronze spearhead, a stone mace with bronze fittings, the remains of a shield, a bone scepter — were on display before at the Wiltshire Museum in the 19th century but security concerns spurred the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society to lend the Bush Barrow gold to the British Museum. After a disastrous restoration in 1985 that irreversibly altered the large lozenge’s shape, the society took the pieces back. Now they and the Monkton Farleigh sun disc are on display together in the new gallery, an exceptional collection of Bronze Age gold.

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Lavau noble buried wearing 1.28-pound gold torc

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

The excavation of the princely tomb from the early 5th c. B.C. unearthed at Lavau in France’s Champagne region was completed a few days ago. Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have now published more about what they found in the richly appointed grave.

The deceased is laid out in the center of the tomb, head oriented south, with his two-wheeled chariot. The prince wears a torc in solid gold weighing 580 grams (1.28 pounds), significantly heavier that 480-gram 24-carat gold torc in the Lady of Vix grave discovered in 1953 about 40 miles south of Lavau. This rigid neck ring is richly decorated in a double motif of winged monster, extended by pear-shaped stamps. On his wrists are gold bracelets while his bicep is encircled by an lignite armlet. Near the nape of his neck are several finely worked amber beads, the remains of a necklace or hair ornament. There are also very rare surviving organic remains from his clothing. Archaeologists found two iron and coral hooks attached to fragments of leather and a row of rivets — remnants of the collar from his top — bodkins and bronze hooks from his shoes.

The largest and most elaborately decorated find — the bronze cauldron three feet in diameter adorned with four circular handles attached to the head of Greek river-god Achelous and eight lion heads around the rim — is part of a wine set that includes the Attic black figure ceramic oinochoe, perforated spoon and smaller bronze vessels found inside the cauldron. It’s Greco-Latin in manufacture and was probably the centerpiece of an aristocratic Celtic banquet.

The Lavau burial has several elements in common with the Lady of Vix, including the huge and hugely fancy banquetware. It dates to around 500 B.C., on the cusp between the end of the Hallstatt and the beginning of the La Tène period. She too was buried with exceptionally rich grave goods of Greek and Celtic extraction: a bronze volute krater of immense size — 5’4″ high, 290 gallon capacity, 450 lbs total weight including base and lid — which is the largest metal vessel from Classical antiquity known to survive, an oinochoe wine jug (although the Vix one was bronze while Lavau’s is black figure ceramic with a gilded rim and foot) a two-wheeled chariot, a heavy gold torc and jewelry with amber beads.

Another slightly later tomb (mid-4th century B.C.), that of the Princess of Reinheim, unearthed near Saargemünd, Germany, just across the border with Lorraine, also has similar grave goods: a gold torc around her neck and gold bangles on each wrist, amber beads by her side (once held in a long-decayed wooden jewelry box, perhaps), and an expensive beverage set composed of a large bronze flagon (1’8″ high), other bronze basins and the remains of gold fixtures thought to be from drinking horns.

The Lady of Vix’s remains were almost completely decomposed. She was deemed a lady because even with all the priceless treasures interred with her none of them are weapons. The same conclusion was drawn from the lack of a weapon in the grave goods of the Princess of Reinheim whose skeletal remains were annihilated by the acidic soil, but modern archaeology is reluctant to draw firm conclusions on sex based on the nature of the grave goods. A knife still in its sheath was found in the Lavau grave, but Celtic women were known to have fought, so we can’t assume the prince is not a princess. The bones that have survived are in very poor condition so it’s not possible to determine the deceased’s sex just by observation. Unlike with the Lady of Vix who was unearthed in 1953, modern archaeology may be able to make the determination by other means (DNA testing, stable isotope analysis).

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