Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

1st c. B.C. Gallic chariot tomb found in France

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Archaeologists surveying the site of highway construction in Warcq, a town in the Ardennes department of northeastern France, have unearthed a rare Gallic chariot tomb from the first to mid-second century B.C. Inside the tomb is an aristocrat of Remi tribe, one of the first Celtic tribes to have settled Gaul. They buried their aristocrats in pits, resting on top of their chariots, since the 6th century B.C. and several hundred of them have been unearthed in the region.

This one is unique, however, for several reasons. It is exceptionally large at five square meters (54 square feet), dwarfing the other known tombs of this type. It was also found intact, untouched by tomb robbers, and in an exceptional state of preservation. The waterlogged clay soil has preserved most of the timber framing, including the roof which has collapsed on the tomb contents. The late date of the burial is also exceptionally rare. Most Remi chariot tombs date to the start of the second Iron Age (5th-4th century B.C.).

The team has not yet been able to determine if the human remains belonged to a man or a woman. A man, a chieftain and military leader, is the likelier candidate, but women have been found in chariot tombs as well. Forensic anthropologists will attempt to determine sex from the skull and pelvic bones, but if they’ve sustained too much damage to be identifiable, the grave goods will help pinpoint whether a woman or a man was buried there. Military artifacts will point to a man’s burial, household goods to a woman’s. To the left of the skeleton archaeologists found some beads, but they were probably part of the deceased’s coat rather than grave goods in their own right.

The metal strapping from the two wheels of the chariot has survived, and amazingly enough, so have fragments of gold leaf that archaeologists believe once coated the inner wheel. The hubs are decorated with bronze features inlaid with glass paste. These precious elements strongly indicate this was a ceremonial chariot rather than a utilitarian piece.

Buried with the deceased were four horses. They were quite petite, 4’3″ at the withers, and were sacrificed specifically to accompany their master on his or her journey to the afterlife. Their skeletons appear to be intact at this point. The skull of one of them was lodged under one of the wheels of the chariot, but the bones of two horses buried along the western wall are still articulated. Four horses are another unusual feature in a Remi chariot tomb. The common find is a simple pair of horses. The remains of a fifth smaller animal (possibly a pig) have also been unearthed.

This survey was only scheduled to last three weeks before highway construction began, so the archaeologists are battling against time to get everything out of the grave with proper deliberation. Officially they have three days left, but they have far more to do than can be done in such a short window. In order to excavate the full site, they have to remove the collapsed ceiling planks. They can’t just yank them out, though, because they’re incredibly rare artifacts in their own right. Instead, each plank has to be coated in plaster strips to ensure they maintain structural integrity before being moved very slowly to keep them intact.

The President of the General Council of the Ardennes, Senator Benedict Huré, has assured the archaeologists that they will have all the time they need to properly excavate the tomb, “a week or more if necessary.” That’s not exactly a reassuringly generous offer, but the alternative is to rebury everything and pave it over, so here’s hoping they get the time they need to do a thorough job of extracting the archaeological remains.

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Min Fanglei reunited with its lid in Hunan museum

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

A large bronze ritual wine vessel from the Late Shang dynasty (12th/11th century B.C.) that is the greatest example of its kind has been donated to the Hunan Provincial Museum where it was reunited with its lid after almost 100 years of separation. It was slated to be the star lot at a Christie’s Asian art auction on March 20th, but a group of Chinese collectors came together to buy the artifact for the museum. The private sale went through on March 19th, one day before the auction. The sum paid is undisclosed, but the scuttlebutt is that it was around $30 million.

At more than two feet high, the Min Fanglei (Min is the name of its maker inscribed inside the vessel’s neck, fanglei is the word for “wine vessel”) is the largest archaic bronze of its kind, taller even without its lid than any other known example with lids.

The vessel’s massive size distinguishes this extraordinary work as one of the foremost examples of its kind. The surface is intricately cast with stylized animals and mysterious monster masks that provide a fascinating insight into early Chinese culture and beliefs. The crisp, precise casting of this complex design vividly illustrates why bronze vessels created during the Shang and Zhou dynasties rank among the finest examples of bronze casting the world has ever seen.

When it last passed through Christie’s hands in 2001, the vessel sold for $9,246,000, then a world auction record for any piece Asian art. It remains a record price for an archaic Chinese bronze sold at auction.

It was certain to blow right through that figure had it gone under the hammer in March. The Hunan Provincial Museum would have found it very expensive to go head-to-head against the deep-pocketed collectors that have driven prices for Asian art into the stratosphere over the past decade or so. It declared its intention to bid, but odds are slim it would have won. Wanting the masterpiece rejoined with its lid in the museum inspired Taiwan collector Robert Tsao to contact his fellow collectors abroad, in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland and call for a united front: nobody bids to give the museum a chance to win. The private purchase ensured nobody else could kill the reunion plan.

The Min Fanglei was unearthed by peasants in Taoyuan County, Hunan province, in 1922. The son of the peasant brought the lid to his school in the hope that the schoolmaster could identify it. The schoolmaster immediately recognized what a treasure it was and bought the lid for 800 hundred silver dollars. Meanwhile, a businessman from Hubei province (Hunan’s neighbor to the north) got wind of the find and bought the body of the vessel for 400 silver dollars. That’s how the two parts got separated.

The lid was sold to a military officer who gave it to the Hunan government in 1952. In 1956 it became part of the permanent collection of the Hunan Provincial Museum. The body was sold to the city of Shanghai in 1924 and then purchased at auction by foreign collectors. While the lid stayed in China, the vessel traveled the world, jumping from collector to collector in the US, the UK, Japan and France. It was a French collector who bought it at the 2001 Christie’s auction. He died earlier this year, which is why the Min Fanglei was on the market again.

The Min Fanglei arrived in Changsha, Hunan’s capital on June 21st. On June 28th at a ceremony at the museum, officials placed the lid on the vessel for the first time in a century. It will go on permanent display at the Hunan Provincial Museum in 2015 when it reopens after a three-year renovation.

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The Odyssey in LEGO

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

The LEGO construction geniuses of VirtuaLUG have outdone themselves this year, building a vast world that follows the journeys of Odysseus. The LEGO Odyssey was made for Brickworld Chicago 2014, a convention where LEGO artists come together to share knowledge and show their work. VirtuaLUG is known for its large, complex world-building, usually representations of famous literature like The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings.

They outdid themselves this year with The Odyssey. It’s the largest model yet at nearly 300 square feet. The gorgeous Aegean ocean required 400,000-500,000 dots to make. There are just shy of a million in the entire piece. There are moving parts, flashing lights, even a fully functional water feature. The level of detail, the textures of ocean, island, animal and giant, the diverse color palettes and architecture all combine to lend each section its own distinct character. Then there are the whimsical touches, references to the LEGO movie, the inclusion of the VirtuaLUG builders as a ship’s crew and best of all, the trireme crewed entirely by Wookies.

The LEGO version of the Homeric saga starts with Troy and the devious horse that broke the decade-long siege. The sides of the horse are open so you can see the treacherous Greeks waiting within to deliver destruction unto Ilium. From there the model follows Odysseus’ ships as they travel to the Island of the Lotus Eaters, Polyphemus’ Island where the sheep are large and adorable, Aeolus’ Island with the neatest mechanics, the Isle of the Laestrygonians, with amazingly dynamic articulated giant cannibals and Odysseus’ destroyed ships in the harbour, Circe’s Island complete with a finely laid out table and formerly human swine, the strikingly black, red and white Hades guarded by Cerebus, the Island of the Sirens, freaky Scylla and churning Charybdis, the Isle of Helios with the god’s adorably sacred cattle, the soaring white highrise temple of Olympus, the craggy white and blue Island of Calypso, and finally Ithaca, crammed with surly suitors and Odysseus’ son and wife fending them off.

There are great pictures on VirtuaLUG’s Flickr page, each with a brief description of the part of the story being represented. To get a real sense of the impressive size and scope of the piece, however, you must view the full tour of the installation guided by VirtualLUG’s Chris Phipson in the video below. It’s long at 22 minutes, but it’s essential viewing because you get to see extremely important details including the swirly multi-colored portal of Hades (8:50), the working fountain in Troy (11:35), the light-up lightning bolt Zeus sent to destroy Odysseus’ ship after his men ate Helios’ sacred cattle (14:08), the unbelievably complex underwater scene with swimming sharks or dolphins chasing a Nereid (15:02) and my personal favorite, the phenomenal moving wind features of the Isle of Aeolus (5:00).

Note: around 16:20 he refers to the Isle of Circe, when in fact it’s the Isle of Calypso. He just mispoke. Earlier in the tour at 5:50 he covers the real Circe bit where Odysseus’ men were turned into swine.

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Early medieval gold coin hoard found in Netherlands

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

47 gold solidi unearthed in Drenthe province, the NetherlandsTwo metal detector enthusiasts searching in the Netherlands’ northeastern Drenthe province have discovered 47 gold coins from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The treasure consists of gold solidi minted in Constantinople, Rome, Ravenna and Laon, in northern France. Most of the coins, 38 of them, are Byzantine and depict the emperor Justinian. The most recent coin dates to 541 A.D. It’s rare to find loose gold coins from this period in the northern Netherlands; a coin hoard is unique. The last time gold treasure was unearthed in Drenthe was 1955.

The gold solidi each weigh more than four grams for a total of more than 200 grams, making the find the greatest amount of 6th century currency by weight ever found in the Netherlands. One coin is the only example of its kind discovered on Dutch soil. It’s a Frankish coin minted by the Merovingian King Theudebert (534-548), the first king to issue characteristic Merovingian coinage bearing his own image rather than the Byzantine emperor’s.

To prevent treasure hunters flocking to the site, no information is being divulged about the exact find area. We thus don’t know much about the context, but whoever buried the coins is likely to have been a high ranking personage in the local ruling elite.

That there was such a huge amount of money in circulation, according to an archaeologist involved means that Drenthe was an important political factor. [...]

The money may have been a diplomatic payment, probably a pay-off to keep the Drenthe people away from the boundaries of the Merovingian kingdom. That kingdom then was from the South of France to the major rivers in the [central] Netherlands.

Gold coin of King Theudebert I from Drenthe hoardVery little is known about the Netherlands of the 6th century and few archaeological remains from the period have been unearthed, so this find would be nationally significant even if it weren’t a flashy stash of gold solidi.

The discovery was made this spring, and the finders reported it promptly to the province’s government archaeologists. The find was announced to the public on Friday. The treasure was acquired by the Drenthe Museum which put the coins on public display starting Saturday. The hoard now takes its place as one of the most important exhibitions in the museum. Museum director Annabelle Birnie, as quoted in the Drenthe province’s press release:

“We are very pleased with our newest addition. It’s a great addition, and of great importance to our archaeological collection. In addition to the gold treasure of Tomahawk from the 5th century and the coin treasure Nietap from the 7th century, we now have a masterpiece in the 6th century, a period about which relatively little is known. This acquisition, combined with further research can give us new insights into this period of the Early Middle Ages.”

 

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Volunteer finds first gold coin at Vindolanda

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall, is a huge motherlode of archaeological discoveries, with its nine rebuilds, related civilian communities and near continuous use from 85 A.D. until the 9th century. Most famously, the anoxic waterlogged ground has preserved an unprecedented collection of correspondence written in ink on thin postcard-sized pieces of wood in a cursive Latin. More than 700 have been recovered and transcribed (see the full collection including high resolution pictures on the Vindolanda Tablets Online database). The Vindolanda tablets are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain and a remarkable primary source of information about life at the northern border Roman Britain before and after the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.

The site has been excavated regularly since 1970. The first tablets were found in 1973 and every year new discoveries are made. The Vindolanda fort has produced the greatest collection of Roman footwear anywhere in the Roman Empire, delicate textiles, altars, brooches, rings, gaming pieces, extensive structures including two bathhouses, one before Hadrian, one after, temples, a granary, officer’s houses and soldier barracks. Thousands of coins have been unearthed by professional archaeologists and by the more than 6,400 volunteers who have dug alongside them since 1970. None of them, however, have been gold.

Until now. On June 3rd, 2014, the first gold coin at Vindolanda was found by a French volunteer.

Volunteer Marcel Albert, from Nantes, France, who has been taking part at the Vindolanda dig since 2008, described his discovery simply as “magnifique,” and with the knowledge that although 1000’s of coins had already been discovered at Vindolanda but none of them were gold he said “I thought it can’t be true, it was just sitting there as I scrapped back the soil, shining, as if someone had just dropped it.”

The well worn coin was soon confirmed by the archaeologists as an aureus (gold coin) which although found in the late 4th century level at Vindolanda bears the image of the Emperor Nero which dates the coin to AD 64-65. This precious currency, equating to over half a years’ salary for a serving soldier, had been in circulation for more than 300 years before being lost on this most northern outpost of the Roman Empire.

The coin features the laureate head of Nero in right profile with the inscription “NERO CAESAR” on the obverse. On the reverse is an image of Nero standing radiate, holding a branch and a globe on which stands a small figure of Victory. It bears the legend “AVGVSTVS GERMANICVS.” Nero had these aurei issued in the wake of his monetary reform of 64 A.D. To make a dollar out of fifteen cents, Nero reduced the weight of the gold in the coins so he could mint more with less. Silver coins fared worse, being not just shortweighted but also less pure. Bronze, copper and brass coins he cranked out in vast quantities. Nero was the first emperor to debase the coinage, but he wouldn’t be the last.

You can tell from its condition that the aureus went through a great many hands in its long life as legal tender. It was unearthed at the fort itself, not in the village that grew next to it. Gold coins are very rare in Roman military sites. They were just far beyond the level of currency exchanged in military outposts. Chances are, this is the only aureus that will ever be found at Vindolanda.

The coin will be studied in greater detail, along with the panoply of other artifacts discovered during this season’s dig (April 7th – September 19th). Once it has been researched and documented, the aureus will likely go on display at the site’s Roman Army Museum.

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Mausoleum of Romulus reopens after 20 years

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Front entrance of Mausoleum of RomulusThe Mausoleum of Valerius Romulus, son of the Roman Emperor Maxentius, reopened to the public Monday after 20 years of restoration. The large circular structure was built by Maxentius in the early 4th century, probably as a family tomb, on the Appian Way. When his young son died around 309 A.D. — he is said to have drowned in the Tiber — he was buried in the mausoleum.

Sarcophagus niche off circular corridorThe tomb was part of a large imperial complex that included Maxentius’ palace and a circus for chariot racing. Little of the palace is still standing, while the mausoleum has lost its second level but is still an impressive structure, inside and out. It is surrounded by a quadroporticus on the outside with its main entrance on the Via Appia and two smaller entrances facing the palace and the circus. On the mausoleum itself, the main entrance facing the Appia was walled up centuries ago. It has now been reopened in the recent restoration. Inside, the crypt has a large central pillar with a circular corridor onto which open niches where the sarcophagi of the royal family would have been deposited. A spacious vestibule connected to the corridor probably once led to the second floor.

Side of mausoleum with 18th century house attachedThere’s an 18th century brick home attached to the back of the mausoleum that was originally a farmhouse for use when the property was dedicated to agricultural purposes. It was later converted into a home for personal use by the princely Torlonia family, who owned the land before it was requisitioned by the Fascist government in 1943.

The circus, while in ruins, is the best preserved of its kind, with pieces of all its major architectural components extant. Two of its gate towers have survived, as have the remains of the starting gates, the spina (the central median around which the chariots turned), and a triumphal arch. It’s also the second largest circus after the Circus Maximus at 500 meters (1640 feet) long and 90 meters (295 feet) wide. There was room in the stands for as many as 10,000 spectators to watch the races.

Circus of Maxentius engraving, 1750Parts of the circus were excavated by archaeologist Antonio Nibby in 1825, who unearthed a marble inscription dedicating the inaugural games to the deified Valerius Romulus, clarissimus puer (most highly regarded boy), nobilissimus vir (most noble man), twice consul of Rome, son of Maxentius the undefeated Augustus, grandson of the divine Maximian. Before that discovery, the circus was thought to have been Caracalla’s doing.

Mausoleum of Romulus interiorMaxentius would have been very put out to find his construction project attributed to another emperor. The Appia complex was part of a major effort on his part to legitimize his usurpation of the throne through the revival of great building in the city of Rome. In the years before the Praetorian Guard made Maxentius, formerly a Caesar or junior emperor, Augustus, emperors like Diocletian, Maximian and Galerius had focused imperial construction on other cities: Nicomedia for Diocletian, Milan for Maximian, Salonica for Galerius. They brought the imperial court and administration to these cities, diminishing Rome’s political and architectural importance.

With that in mind, Maxentius moved to build anew in Rome. The Appian Way complex was intended to be a new administrative center, not just a compound for private fun. The choice to place it on the Appia, outside of the formal boundary of the city of Rome where the tombs of the wealthy had for centuries dotted the roadside, was a break with tradition. He may have decided to build out there because he wanted his dynastic tomb to be part of the complex, and according to Roman custom, all bodies had to be buried outside the city.

You can take a look around the complex via satellite on Google Maps. To the right of the red marker are the circus ruins. Slightly up and to the left is the mausoleum.


View Larger Map

 

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Swedish city returns ancient textiles to Peru

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

Hummingbird tunic with fringe, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureAfter years of negotiations, the City of Gothenburg in southwestern Sweden has agreed to return its collection of 89 textiles from the Paracas peninsula to Peru. The 2,000-year-old textiles are in extremely fragile condition, so they will be repatriated in phases. The first four pieces arrive in Peru next week and will be unveiled on June 18th. The rest will be transported over the course of seven years until the whole collection is returned by 2021.

Julio C. TelloThese extraordinary embroidered textiles first came to archaeologists’ attention in the early 20th century when they began to appear in private collections. Their intensity of color, size, design and composition were unique, unlike any textiles from known Peruvian cultures. Realizing that the textiles had to have been looted from an unknown site, Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello hired professional looter Juan Quintana to guide him to the find spot in 1925. He led Tello to Paracas, a desert peninsula on the southern coast of Peru, where Tello’s team excavated the remains of a civilization that flourished from around 700 B.C. to the second century A.D. when it became assimilated into the Nazca culture.

Mantle with squares, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureThe people of the Paracas culture were able fishermen, farmers and craftspeople. They made obsidian tools, ceramics, hammered gold jewelry, basketry and most gloriously of all, complex and beautiful textiles. Made from the wool of camelids (llamas, alpacas and vicuñas) and cotton, the textiles were colored in more than 200 different bright shades using natural dyes. Every fabric was embroidered by hand with cactus thorn needles, and when you consider that textiles have been found that are 34 meters (112 feet) long, you can imagine what an incredibly labor-intensive process it was. Archaeologists believe it took years to produce a single such masterpiece.

Illustration of Paracas burial bundleCreating such intricate and large textiles was a collaborative effort, the work of many people working at once. The textiles had important religious significance and indicated a person’s status in the community. The most exceptional examples were discovered by Tello on October 1st, 1927, when he encountered a vast funerary complex he named the Wari Kayan necropolis. There 429 people were found buried wrapped in layer after layer of textiles. The dead were adorned in their most prized possessions — jewelry, clothes, headbands — and seated in fetal position in a basket. Grave goods, food and sacrificial objects were added, and then the entire basket was wrapped in layers of fine embroidered textiles with a rough cotton cloth on the outermost layer. That’s why the large textiles were needed, because by the time they got to the outer layers, the bundles got big, as much as five feet high and seven feet wide.

Killer whale turban, Paracas, 100 A.D. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureWhen Tello unearthed these marvels, they had been kept in pristine condition by the arid desert climate and the lack of oxygen and light in the underground burials. As soon as they were excavated, the textiles started to degrade. All the Paracas finds were sent to museums in Lima for study and conservation. In 1930, the dictatorship of Augusto B. Leguía was overthrown in a military coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Luis Miguel Sánchez Cerro. The subsequent social and political upheaval and war with Colombia left the Paracas textiles vulnerable to depredation. Looting and smuggling increased dramatically.

Fish turban, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIt was during this chaos that 89 Paracas textiles found their way to Sweden. They were smuggled out of Peru in the early 1930s by Sven Karell, then the Swedish Consul General in Peru, who acquired them on the black market and shipped them back home into the appreciative arms of the Ethnographic Department of Gothenburg Museum. They went on display in November of 1932, but they were exposed to UV light, varying levels of heat and moisture, and repeated handling, all of which contributed to their decay.

Cat poncho, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIn 1939 the museum was renovated. To prepare for their new exhibition, the Paracas textiles were sewn onto linen or dyed cotton and framed in glass. In 1963 the textiles were mounted vertically onto panels that could be pulled out. This turned out to be a disaster, as the vibrations from the pulling out damaged the increasingly delicate pieces. Finally in 1970 the textiles were taken out of public view. The museum moved to a new building in 1992, by which time the textiles had been installed in custom-built display cases. Then the Paracas collection moved again in 2001, this time to the Museum of World Culture. Because the fibers were in such poor condition, the textiles were moved on air suspended truck.

Four-color tunic, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureThey remained out of view until 2008, when after careful analysis the textiles which were found to be able to withstand movement were put on display. They were laid out horizontally and transported the short distance from the archives to the Museum of World Culture in vibration-free cases. A crane lifted them into the gallery through a window. The exhibition ran for three years. When the textiles returned to the museum archives, there was more fiber damage even with nothing but the utmost of caution employed in their transportation and display.

Black robe figure mantle, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIt was that 2008 exhibition that spurred the repatriation talks. Not only did the museum not deny that the textiles had been smuggled by the Consul General, the exhibition was entitled A Stolen World and detailed the whole saga without flinching. It’s quite remarkable, really. I’ve never seen a museum so directly confront its complicity in the traffic in looted antiquities. Peruse the museum’s dedicated Paracas website to see how they handle the issue and to view some exquisite photographs of the collection.

Fish mantle, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIn December of 2009, Peru contacted the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally requesting the return of the purloined Paracas textiles. Since the museum had just opened an exhibition whose catalog included copies of the letters between Karell and the Gothenburg Museum officials overtly plotting the receipt of stolen goods, there was none of the usual nonsense about “good faith” and “anonymous Swiss collections.” Peru’s legal right was undisputed. The main question was whether the textiles could stand transportation across the globe when they could barely stand to be transported a mile or so from storage to the display galleries.

Calendar cloak detail, Paracas, 100 A.D. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureNow those issues have been dealt with as responsibly as possible, and the first four Paracas textiles are on their way home. One of them is a particularly exceptional example, a cloak about 104 by 53 centimeters made of squares with 32 different figures of animals, humans, plants and tools. Paracas textiles usually employ single motifs repeated over and over, so this tiled design is unique. Archaeologists believe it represents the movement of time, like a gorgeously embroidered Advent calendar. According to the felicitously named Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, Peru’s Vice Minister of Cultural Patrimony, the Paracas calendar textile is “the most important textile from Peru and one of the most important in the world.”

Paracas calendar cloak, 100 A.D. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World Culture

 

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Oldest known trousers found in China

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Front view of woolen trousers from tomb M21, ca. 1,000 B.C.The oldest known trousers in the world have been found in two tombs of the Subeixi culture in northwestern China. The burials are among more than 500 that have been excavated in the Yanghai cemetery near the city of Turfan since the first grave was discovered by local villagers in the 1970s. The cemetery is in a gravel desert, an arid climate that can get as hot as 122°F in the summer and as cold as -20°F in the winter, which ensures the preservation of organic material like human and animal remains, plants and textiles.

The M157 fragment set in a reconstruction of their full designThe woolen pants were found in tombs M21 and M157. The ones in the former are almost complete, while only fragments of the trousers were found in the latter. Radiocarbon dating analysis on samples of the fabric from both pairs found that the M21 pants date to 1122-926 B.C., while the M157 pants may be slightly older at 1261–1041 B.C. That makes these finds centuries older than the oldest Scythian pants (5th to 3rd centuries B.C.).

This period marked the shift from settled farming and herding communities to nomadic pastoral lifestyles on horseback in central Asia. The bit and harness made controlling the horse at high speeds over long distances or during battle possible, but now the riders needed an article of clothing that would allow them to side astride while protecting their legs and genitals. The tunics, gowns, and the combination of loincloth and individual leggings tied to a waistband like Otzi the Iceman was wearing 2,000 years earlier when he died in the Alps weren’t going to do the trick.

It was the invention of the crotch that ushered in the era of the trousers. The crotch joins the legs together with the abdominal section and waist, converting the four pieces of the leggings-waistband-loincloth rig into a single garment. This design allowed riders to spread their legs as wide as they needed to while still protecting the inginual and pelvic areas.

Back view of M21 trousersThe Yanghai trousers, particularly the pair found in tomb M21, illuminate this revolutionary construction. Even the damage is helpful to archaeologists. The front of the trousers and the left leg are in excellent condition, while the back and right leg have holes that fortuitously expose the inside of the pants and the left seams. A new study published in Quaternary International found that the trousers are formed from three separately woven pieces: two straight-cut legs and a stepped cross-shaped crotch that covers the genitals from the front to the back. There are side slits in the waistband, and a remnant of string at the edges of the slits suggests the trousers were closed on both sides with drawstrings.

The seams on the inside of the legs and the edges where the crotch-piece is stitched to the legs are covered with a decorative braid. There’s also decoration woven into the fabric.

The warp thread in the leg-pieces is brown but cream-coloured in the crotch-piece, whereas the weft changes between brown and cream and so forms patterns. At the upper part of the trousers, where the fabric covers the abdomen, the ground colour is cream and the ornaments are brown weft. Double lines of brown weft were woven into the fabric decorating the entire crotch-piece at regular intervals. By contrast, the fabric of the leg-pieces is dominated by a shade of brown, on which the ornaments stick out in cream-shaded weft. At the height of the crotch the background colour changes from shades of cream to brown through an interlocking stepped triangle pattern. At the height of the knees a zone of rhombic meandering ornament occurs. At the height of the calves two parallel zigzag lines and a third one just above the hemline are woven around the leg.

Sequence illustrating how the trousers were tailoredNo cloth was cut in the making of these pants. Each piece was woven individually to fit the person who wore them. Since the yarns and threads all match, either one person did all the work or the weaver and tailor worked closely together.

Horse-related grave goods found in both tombs underscore the connection between the trousers and their function. The man buried in M21 went to his eternal rest with a decorated leather bridle with a wooden horse bit hanging from a stick near his head. Tomb M157 includes a whip, a decorated horse tail, a bow sheath and a bow. Both men were about 40 years old at the time of death and were buried wearing the ancestors of riding breeches.

 

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Remains of massive 2nd c. building found in France

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Remains of 2nd c. Roman building on the site of an old municipal soccer fieldUnder a disused municipal soccer field in Pont-Sainte-Maxence, a city in the northern French province of Oise, archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have unearthed the remains of a massive 2nd century A.D. Gallo-Roman building while surveying the site for future construction. Hundreds of limestone blocks, many of them carved, were found buried in the sandy soil next to the Compiègne-Senlis national highway, formerly a Roman road.

Architectural archaeologist rendering of part of facadeIt was built at the end of the reign of the Emperor Antoninus (138-161 A.D.) and appears to have collapsed very soon after construction. The structure was an estimated 90 meters (295 feet) wide and 9.5 meters (31 feet) high, but only one meter (three feet) thick. That bold architectural choice of building so high a wall without bracing doubtless played a major role in its untimely demise, along with the sandy soil on which it was built. The facade had a series of 13-17 arches in the center, the building blocksReconstruction of facade with central arches of which are lying horizontally where they fell. They were sufficiently broken and damaged to spare them from stone scavengers, but expertly preserved by the dry sand that became their home for almost 2,000 years.

Carved blocks, Venus headless on the rightArchaeologists aren’t certain yet of what purpose the building was dedicated to, but it could have been a religious sanctuary of some kind sponsored by a hugely wealthy patron. Almost the entire Greco-Roman pantheon is represented in the high quality bas-relief carvings of the frieze. They were carved in a Hellenistic style entirely unlike anything else found in the north of Gaul. The work is so exquisite that it’s not likely to have been carved locally. It’s the kind of statuary you’d expect to find in Rome or Greece, not in distant northern Gallic provinces, even at the height of imperial prosperity in the 2nd century. Somebody paid an enormous amount of money to build this monumental structure.

Detail of petrified old ladyThere are realistic depictions of Jupiter as the horned ram Ammon, horses, griffins, floral and geometric reliefs, and a figure of Venus next to the head and hand of an old woman poised as if she’s whispering, a representation of the myth of Venus turning an old woman to stone after she betrayed the location of Venus and Mars’ adulterous tryst, causing them to be found in flagrante delicto by her husband Vulcan. There’s Juno’s peacock, Diana’s quiver and bow, and a face that could be the Medusa, although her snakes are missing so it’s hard to say. Traces of the original color paint that made ancient Roman statuary and architecture so deliciously garish have survived, an exceptionally rare discovery since the paint was often the first to go. Sections of red cinnabar, light green and yellow are clearly visible to the naked eye.

Traces of surviving paintNot only is this huge building unrecorded in surviving sources, but there is no known Gallo-Roman settlement in the area. Ancient docks have been found elsewhere in Pont-Sainte-Maxence, so something was certainly going on at that locale. We just don’t know what. Even after it collapsed people still found things to do there. Coins from the fourth century have been found among the ruins.

Unfortunately archaeologists won’t have the chance to study the site thoroughly. Excavations began two months ago and will continue through the end of June. Then the team has to clear out to make way for the construction crews that will build a shopping center on the site. The fact that there’s an archaeological treasure there that is literally without precedent apparently won’t even cause a delay. All INRAP can do is move the limestone blocks to temporary storage while they find a permanent location to study and document the stones uninterrupted. How they’re going to move all those blocks without damaging them in the very short window of time they have is not yet clear.

 

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Roman marching camp found in Thuringia

Monday, May 19th, 2014

A Roman marching camp from the 1st to 3rd century A.D. has been discovered near the town of Hachelbich in Thuringia. It’s the first Roman military camp found in the eastern German province and the first camp that is more than a day’s travel from the eastern border of the empire on the Rhine. In fact, it’s closer to the Elbe River than it is to the Rhine (the Elbe is about 150 miles east of the site, the Rhine 220 west), a strong indication that the Roman military did not completely withdraw to the Rhine even after three legions led by Publius Quintilius Varus were slaughtered by Germanic tribesmen at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D.

The discovery of a large third century battlefield on Harzhorn hill in Lower Saxony in 2008 confirmed that there was a significant Roman military presence east of the Teutoburg Forest more than 200 years after Varus’ humiliating defeat. Archaeologists estimate about 1,000 Roman soldiers fought (and won) at Harzhorn. The Hachelbich marching camp is about 60 miles southeast of Harzhorn. It covers 18 hectares and was large enough to accommodate an entire legion of around 5,000 soldiers. As a marching camp, it wasn’t a permanent fortress, but rather a protective enclosure built by the legionaries in one evening so they could camp down in a defended position. They wouldn’t have spent more than a few days there while on their way elsewhere, in this case probably east towards the Elbe.

The site was found in 2010 during road work, but it was kept quiet while archaeologists explored the area. They excavated more than two hectares and covered another 10 hectares with magnetometers and aerial surveys. Now that the site has been identified as a military camp, the Thuringian State Office for Heritage and Archaeology has announced the find. They’re keeping the exact location a secret, however, to keep looters from ravaging the place on the hunt for portable Roman artifacts.

A rough rectangle with round corners, the camp is standard Roman military issue. No matter where they were, legions on the move set up a minifortress in the wilderness at the end of each day’s march. At Hachelbich, the meter-deep trenches dug around the camp were the easiest feature to spot in the soil. Two perimeter trenches have been found, each more than 400 meters long.

On the camp’s northern edge, the soldiers built a gate protected by another trench that projected out past the perimeter. “It’s typically Roman—no Germans did that sort of thing,” Kuessner says. The trenches were part of a simple, but effective makeshift perimeter defense: A low wall of dirt was thrown up behind the trench, then topped with tall stakes, to create a defensive barrier almost 3 meters wide and 3 meters high. Erosion wiped away the wall long ago, but it left discolorations in the soil where the trench was dug.

Archaeologists also unearthed the remains of eight bread ovens close to the camp perimeter, which shows an impressive commitment to quality food considering the legionaries weren’t going to be there for long. Some artifacts confirming the military nature of the camp were found: four hobnails from the soles of Roman caligae, fittings from a sword scabbard and horse tackle.

The style of the artifacts places the camp in the first two centuries of the first millennium and radiocarbon dating supports the range, but archaeologists haven’t found anything to narrow it down any further or link to the camp to the reign of a certain emperor. Excavations will continue this year and the next at least. After the crops in the valley are harvested this fall, archaeologists will be able to excavate the farmland. They hope to find coins that will provide a precise date, or an artifact with the legion number on it that would write a new chapter in Roman military history.

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