Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Torc hoard is earliest Iron Age gold found in Britain

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

It’s the first gold hoard of the year! We’ve had Bronze Age weapons and Roman copper vessels packed with plants. Now we have a group of four ancient gold torcs discovered by metal detectorists in a cow pasture in Leekfrith on the Staffordshire Moorlands.

The torcs were found last December by Mark Hambleton and Joe Kania. Hambleton had scanned the field some two decades ago without success. They were about to give up when Joe Kania’s machine signalled the presence of metal. All they’d found up to that point was trash and a 19th century coin or two, so Hambleton had already packed up his metal detector when Kania pulled a gold torc out of the ground. Then another. And another. And another. Three of them are necklaces, one a bracelet. Three are complete and intact, the fourth broken, likely by agricultural interference. The torcs were about six inches beneath the surface about a meter (three feet) apart from each other.

Hambleton spent a fitful night failing to sleep with the hoard by his side. The next morning, the finders alerted the Portable Antiquities Scheme to their discovery. Stoke-On-Trent City Council dispatched archaeologists to the field but they found no evidence of further treasure. Hambleton and Kania defied the odds again, though, returning to the spot last Sunday where they discovered the second half of the broken torc.

The Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs were examined by Dr. Julia Farley, the British Museum’s Curator of British & European Iron Age Collections. She determined they were not of British origin, but likely from what is today Germany or France. Analysis of the gold content found that it was no less than 80% in every torc, making them more than 18 carat gold which is 75% pure. The torcs weigh between 31 grams for the smallest piece, the incomplete bracelet, and 230 grams for the largest. The one bracelet stirred particular excitement because it is decorated, etched with lines inside loops. This is some of the earliest Celtic art ever discovered in Britain. All of the workmanship on the torcs is extremely high quality. One of them even has an incredibly rare maker’s mark.

Dr. Farley:

“This unique find is of international importance. It dates to around 400–250 BC, and is probably the earliest Iron Age gold work ever discovered in Britain.

“The torcs were probably worn by wealthy and powerful women, perhaps people from the continent who had married into the local community. Piecing together how these objects came to be carefully buried in a Staffordshire field will give us an invaluable insight into life in Iron Age Britain.”

A coroner’s inquest was held in North Staffordshire on Tuesday. Coroner Ian Smith asked questions of experts about the hoard, its continental origin and how they pieces may have made their way to Leekfrith. After hearing testimony about the torcs’ age and precious metal content, the coroner ruled that the pieces are treasure trove. The next step is for the independent experts of the Treasure Valuation Committee to determine fair value of the torcs. Local museums will then be offered the first opportunity to raise the amount of the valuation. That money will be divided between the finders and the landowner.

Stoke-on-Trent, which is bidding to be a 2021 UK City of Culture, is mighty keen to secure the torc hoard. Another little hoard you might have heard of, the Staffordshire Hoard, spends half its time in Stoke and it has brought millions of tourists and their cash to the region. The Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs will be on display in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-On-Trent, one of two local museums that share custody of the exceptional Staffordshire Hoard, for three weeks before they go back to the British Museum for valuation.

See Joe Kania and Mark Hambleton tell the story of the discovery (notice the awesome traditional dry stone walls behind them as they goof around for the camera in beginning; I love a quality dry stone wall) and Staffordshire officials glow with happiness over their shiny new babies in this video:

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Mithras sanctuary found in Corsica

Saturday, February 25th, 2017

Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventative Archaeology (INRAP) have unearthed an ancient Roman sanctuary dedicated to the God Mithras in Lucciana on east coast of Corsica. This is an exceptionally rare found as it is the first mithraeum ever discovered in Corsica, and only a dozen have been found in all of France.

The site was excavated by INRAP in advance of roadwork planned in the neighborhood. The remains of the ancient city of Colonia Mariana are within the municiple boundaries of Lucciana, but this particular area had not been excavated before. It would have been a peripheral sector of the Roman town, and the remains of modest homes and artisan workshops found in the excavation confirmed that it was a working class neighborhood.

The team began the archaeological survey in November of last year. In the three months since, archaeologists have found the worship room of the mithraic sanctuary and an antechamber. The main hall is a rectangle about 36 feet by 16 feet in dimension. It has a central nave with two long benches going down its length. The benches are six feet wide. A vaulted brick niche was built into each bench taking up the full thickness of the banquette. They were positioned opposite each other, and one of the niches contained three intact oil lamps. This was how the sanctuary was lit.

Other artifacts recovered from the site include a marble head of a woman, a marble foot, pottery, two bronze bells, numerous broken lamps and glass paste jars that may have been liturgical furnishings. Two inscribed plaques, one of bronze, one of lead, were found; the inscriptions have yet to be deciphered. Three fragments of a marble bas-relief are of particularly significance because while some of the carving is missing, it is still recognizable as the tauroctony, the iconic scene of Mithras slaying the sacred bull while a dog and snake drink its blood and a scorpion stings its testicles.

The Persian deity Mithra inspired the religion, but the version that spread throughout the Roman Empire starting in the 1st century A.D. bears little religion to the original. The mystery religion is believed to have been brought west by Roman soldiers and spread from military bases and ports. From what we can tell — there are no written records of the faith — it was only open to men and was particularly popular with soldiers. What we know of Mithraism has been gleaned from archaeological remains, mainly artifacts and art depicting myths and rituals.

The Roman city of Colonia Mariana, was founded around 100 B.C. by Roman general, military reformer and seven-time consul Gaius Marius. He and his one-time friend and colleague turned nemesis Lucius Cornelius Sulla, each founded a colony in Corsica (Sulla’s was Aleria) which they seeded with their veterans. Mariana was an important center in Roman Corsica, thanks largely to its commercial harbor that was a hub of maritime trade on the Mediterranean. The patron saint of Corsica and of the Principality of Monaco, Saint Devota, was born in Mariana in the late 3rd century and was martyred there in 303 A.D. Her martyrdom inspired many a conversion and by the end of the century Mariana was solidly Christian. The Diocese of Mariana was created in 4th or early 5th century, one of the first Christian dioceses in Corsica.

It’s possible the rise of Christianity in Mariana came in direct conflict with the worship of Mithras. Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in 392 and outlawed all pagan religions, including Mithraism. Some of the objects found in the Mariana sanctuary were damaged in antiquity, most notably the altar, and the sanctuary itself appears to have been deliberately destroyed and filled with rubble. A large Paleochristian church and baptistery complex was built in the city around 400 A.D., the first archaeological traces of Christianity in Corsica. There were likely tensions between the adherents of the religions.

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Child’s footprints found in ancient Egyptian mortar

Friday, February 24th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered child-sized footprints in an ancient mortar pit at the archaeological site of Pi-Ramesse, modern-day Qantir, in Egypt. The site at the eastern edge of the Nile Delta about 70 miles northeast of Cairo was once the capital of the pharaoh Ramesses the Great (r. 1279–1213 B.C.) and is recorded in ancient sources as a city of great beauty, power and wealth. An estimated 300,000 people lived in the city which covered seven square miles during its heyday, making one of the biggest late Bronze Age cities in the Mediterranean both in area and population. It had a massive temple, riverside mansions, modest mud-brick homes, a planned street grid, a harbour, a system of navigable canals and lakes like Venice, Ramesses’ great palace, industrial works and high-end artisan workshops.

It was inhabited from the reign of Ramesses until and 1050 B.C. when the branch of the Nile that provided Pi-Ramesse with all of its water silted over. The pharaohs of the 21st Dynasty (1077-943 B.C.) used the former capital as a ready source of building materials. All the splendid architecture — temple reliefs, obelisks, statues, sphinxes — were moved whole to the new capital Tanis and reinstalled there. Entire buildings were dismantled in the abandoned city and rebuilt in the new capital. If the buildings weren’t worthy of reassembly at Tanis, they were simply demolished and their stone used for new structures. They were so thorough that nothing of Pi-Ramesse survives above the surface today.

The site was discovered in the 1960s by Austrian Egyptologist Manfred Bietak. An international team of archaeologists based at the Roemer-Pelizaeus-Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, have excavated the site since 1980, discovering, among many other things, the largest bronze foundry ever discovered, glass-making workshops specializing in red glass, faience factories, a chariot manufacturer with massive stables that could accommodate close to 500 horses and a bone workshop that used the bones of animals long-since extinct in Egypt (lions, elephants, giraffes) that can only have been exotic imports in Ramesses’ days.

From 1996 through 2003, Caesium-Magnetometry was used to take measurements of the ancient city. The technology can differentiate between materials with different magnetic signatures, so for instance since mud brick responds differently than soil, mud-brick structures under the surface became apparent. With the magnetometry data, the team was able to map the layout of Pi-Ramesse.

In one area they identified the remains of a monumental structure measuring about 820 by 490 feet and sections of walls. Archaeologists believe this was a construction site for the renovation of a monumental complex, likely a palace or a temple. Pottery sherds found on the spot date the building to between 1300 and 1200 B.C., so either during the reign of Ramesses or shortly thereafter. Near the monumental remains, the team found an intriguing feature this season: a mortar pit. The pit measures about eight by 26 feet and at the bottom an ancient layer of mortar was still extant. Embedded in the mortar were prints left by the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

The footprints are 5.9-6.6 inches long, so about the size of kids between three and five years old, according to modern growth charts (which may or may not apply). Archaeologists can’t tell yet if they were left by multiple children or if the prints were smeared.

The reason for the children’s presence remains a mystery. Although no modern concept of banning child labor was in place, the footprints seem to be too small even for children who may have been working.

On the other hand, it appears unlikely that royal kids were left to play in the mud and mortar.

It does feel very satisfyingly squishy between your toes. I could easily see a little Prince demanding to have a stomp through the wet mortar, protocol be damned.

On top of the mortar layer, the team found smashed piece of wall plaster bearing the remains of polychrome paint in black, yellow, red and shades of blue. The fragments are small and the original paintings appear to have been large-scale, so the team has not yet been able to identify imagery or motif from the pieces. The fragments are of hard plaster, a substance rarely used in Egyptian art, so may indicate foreign craftsmen were employed at the site. Fresco technique — pigment applied to wet plaster — is also extremely rare in ancient Egypt. More analysis is needed to determine whether this painted plaster was a fresco.

Next season, archaeologists will excavate the pit further in the hope of recovering more missing pieces of the colored plaster. They will then try to puzzle them together to determine their motif and size, which will in turn suggest which walls the paintings may have once adorned. From what we know now, it was likely the monumental structure nearby. The mortar pit could have been used in the renovation and the frescoes stripped from the wall to redecorate in a style more au courant with the fashions 1200 B.C. They will also bring in specialists to analyze the footprints.

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This Roman road brought to you by McDonald’s

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

On Tuesday, February 21st, the first archaeological museum underneath a McDonald’s opened in the Frattochie ward of Marino, a town about 12 miles south of Rome. The museum was built around a pristine stretch of Roman road dating to the 2nd/1st century B.C. discovered in 2014 during construction work on a new McDonald’s. McDonald’s Italia financed the conservation of the road to the tune of 300,000 euro ($317,000). The local Archaeological Superintendency supervised its careful excavation and the installation of underground museum gallery.

The restaurant was still built over the site, but it was designed in a bridge-like shape with transparent flooring that makes the Roman road visible under your feet both when you’re waiting inside for your Royale with Cheese and when you’re sitting outside on the patio. If you prefer to eat elsewhere, what with being in Italy and all, you can still visit the underground museum. It has independent access so you don’t have to walk through MickyD’s to get to it, and entrance is free of charge, courtesy of the Clown.

The road begins near the XI mile of the Via Appia. It’s stretch 45 meters (148 feet) long paved with slabs of siliceous rock bounded on both sides with opus incertum walls made of medium to large pieces of local volcanic rock (peperino and basalt) set in a grey mortar. The ruts of hundreds of years of wagon wheels are deeply embedded in the pavers. The average width is 2.1 meters (a hair under 7 feet). Going towards the Appia, a u-shaped drainage canal runs along the right side of the road, while on the left side the edge stones survive in excellent condition and there’s a little sidewalk .8 meters (2.6 feet) wide. There is evidence that the road was repaired repeatedly in antiquity.

The section was cut off relatively recently, on the east end by the construction and demolition of an industrial plant and by the construction of the New Appian Way on the west end. Nobody noticed the ancient road they cut through. It wasn’t a complete unknown, mind you, just forgotten. The existence of a road feature had been noted on topographical maps as early as the 18th century, but it was architect and antiquarian Luigi Canina who put it on the archaeological map. Canina in his role as Papal Commissioner of Antiquities directed the project of cleaning, restabilizing and restoring the Via Appia Antica and its many funerary monuments between 1851 and 1855. His efforts transformed fragmented, overgrown, ramshackle ruins into the usable road and open-air archaeological park it still is today. In his 1853 work documenting the first section of the Appia, La prima parte della Via Appia dalla Porta Capena a Boville, Canina identified it as a “communication route of the Appian Way at Castrimenio.”

Frattochie, next to Castrimenio, is the modern descendant of the ancient Roman town of Bovillae, the legendary place of origin of the Gens Julia. According to the founding myth of Rome, its father city Alba Longa was destroyed by Roman king Tullus Hostilius in the 7th century B.C. and all of Alba Longa’s sacred objects were moved to Bovillae. These objects and the rituals connected to them were the foundations of Rome’s religions, so Bovillae became an important (and wealthy) religious center. The offshoot of the Appia was likely built for the benefit of a wealthy noble resident of Bovillae who wanted a nice, properly paved road to take him to his doorstep.

Bovillae reached its peak when the Julians came to prominence in Roman politics. Augustus’ body lay is state there before returning to Rome, and Tiberius invested heavily in public buildings including a theater, a circus and a chapel dedicated to the Gens Julia. The town declined after the Julio-Claudians died out in the 1st century. By 326 A.D., it was so insignificant it didn’t garner a mention in a document wherein Emperor Constantine I donated land that included Bovillae to a cathedral in Albano Laziale. Whatever was left of it must have suffered greatly when Alaric I sacked Rome in 410. The towns along the Via Appia were the first to feel the Visigothic wrath.

Following the fortunes of the town, between the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. the road fell into disuse. It became overgrown with vegetation and covered with soil. The locals put the path to good use. Like the Via Appia, it was lined with burials and tombs. One of the tombs is still visible today on the property of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Sacrament, a Trappist monastery in Frattocchie which, just fyi, makes outstanding chocolate.

The McDonald’s excavation unearthed the skeletons of three adult males buried in the 2nd-3rd century A.D. along the stretch of road. Each was in his own grave, with the three graves relatively close together towards the center of the surviving road section. Casts of the skeletons have been placed in the locations of the original graves along the road in the underground museum.

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Is this the skull of the legendary “weasel bear”?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

A huge polar bear skull with very different features from modern polar bear skulls has been discovered at an eroding archaeological site in northernmost Alaska. Its massive size and elongated, narrow shape recall an unusual polar bear reported by Inuit hunters but never photographed, filmed or in any other way scientifically verified.

In interview projects documenting the traditional knowledge of the Inuit peoples of northern Alaska and the western Canadian Arctic, hunters report very rare sightings of a bear “that has a longer neck; it’s high and pure white, but looks like a weasel and runs fast like a weasel”. This creature is known as “tiriarnaq” in the Siglitun dialect, “tigiaqpak” in the Kangiryuarmiut dialect, all of them translating to “weasel bear.”

Here’s a description of a weasel bear by a Sachs Harbour hunter from a 2010 interview:

“You get sometimes bears which we call tiriarnat, and they get over 11 foot. They get very big; they’re slim, their necks are way longer than the stubby bears that we get now. I never seen a weasel type bear for years, years and years…. We used to see some north of Storkerson Bay when we travel…. And they’re very big…. Stubby bears get ten [feet] three [inches], ten [feet] four [inches], that sort of thing. But a weasel type bear is 11-foot plus.

There are differences between some of the accounts of the weasel bear — some say they’re fat, not slender, others say they’re all male — but the large, long, narrow head and neck is common to all the stories. The recently discovered skull fits the description.

“It looks different from your average polar bear,” said Anne Jensen, an Utqiaġvik-based archaeologist who has been leading excavation and research programs in the region.

Through radiocarbon dating and subsequent analysis, Jensen and her colleagues estimate that the big bear skull — which appears to be the fourth largest ever found — is from a period between the years 670 and 800. It is possibly the oldest complete polar bear skull found in Alaska, inspiring a name for the departed creature that owned it: The Old One.

Exactly what accounts for its differences is yet to be determined; genetic testing is needed for that, Jensen said. It could have been a member of a subspecies or a member of a different “race” in genetic terms — similar to the varying breeds that are found among dogs — or possibly something else entirely, said Jensen, who works for the science department of the Native village corporation, Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp., or UIC.

The rapid thawing of the permafrost on the Chukchi Sea coast has exposed the archaeological site of Walakpa, 13 miles southwest of Utqiaġvik (the northernmost city in the United States formerly known as Barrow). First excavated by Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis Stanford in the late 1960s when the permafrost was still perma, Walakpa is a settlement from the Birnirk period (600-1300 A.D.). It was widely believed to have been so thoroughly explored by Stanford’s team that there were no archaeological materials of note left to discover.

Climate change proved that consensus wrong in the late summer of 2013 when the face of a bluff sheered off after a storm, exposing the timbers of an ancient house. They could not be fully excavated due to adverse environmental conditions and lack of funding. In 2014, a 90-foot section of soil collapsed. A local discovered the polar bear skull at that time, although exactly where and when is unclear.

Anne Jensen was finally able to raise the funds for a solid three-week dig last summer. The exposed timbers were lost by then, but Jensen’s team unearthed a number of artifacts and remains preserved for centuries in the permafrost and recovered before their decay was accelerated by the warming soil. The sheered-off bluff where the timers were found still harbored a rare treasure: four mummified seals, naturally preserved in what had once been an ice cellar. These are the only mummified seals ever found outside of the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Jensen excavated one of them, a female dubbed Patou dating to the mid-1940s whose body is intact from fur to claws.

Time is running out for this site and many others in Alaska, and funding hasn’t come to close to keeping up with the pace of site deterioration.

The good condition of the artifacts is only temporary. As thaw and erosion occurs, items fall into the sea or, if exposed to the air, are at risk of decay.

Even if they are not exposed to air, artifacts can be vulnerable to below-ground degradation, Jensen said. As soils warm, bacteria are better able to decompose bones and other items. Even worse, warming soils can bring the items to a point where they generate their own heat, speeding the decomposition process.

With open water present up to eight months of the year instead of two and with temperatures rising and shorelines crumbling, the threats to the archaeological sites are increasing exponentially, Jensen said. Sites are eroding at a rate that far outpaces the normal grant process used to secure funding for work, and some new emergency approach is probably warranted, she said.

“It’s like the library is essentially on fire — now,” she said.

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Roman vessel hoard packed with plants found

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Metal detectorists discovered eight Roman copper-alloy vessels — an iron-rimmed cauldron, a deep bowl, a shallow bowl, a high-sided pot and four small scale pans — in Wiltshire’s Vale of Pewsey in October, 2014. They dug them out of the ground, unfortunately, but they did have the forethought not to clean them, a decision that ensured the survival of the pots’ incredibly rare contents. What looked like dirt and weeds was in fact ancient plant material packed in the vessel hoard when it was buried.

A hoard of eight Roman pots is already a great rarity. Fewer than 30 copper alloy vessel hoards have been found from late antiquity in Britain. As small as this number is, it’s still more than have been found anywhere else in the Roman world. That the organic remains the vessels contained didn’t decay into dust makes it a unique find. The plants were preserved by the creation of an air-tight pocket inside the carefully nested pots. It was probably a fluke, a result of the way the vessels were stacked and positioned inside each other.

Inside the cauldron, the biggest piece, was placed the shallow bowl (Vessel A). The high-sided pot (Vessel B) with the four little scale pans inside was placed in the shallow bowl, its rounded feet raising it from direct contact with the bottom of the bowl. The deep bowl (Vessel C), of a type known as an Irchester bowl, was flipped upside-down to cover vessel B entirely and cover the rim of Vessel A. The organic remains were almost entirely contained in Vessel B. As the metal corroded over the years, the copper salts were absorbed by plant material, also helping to preserve it. The plants have a powdery consistency now because of the copper salts, but they’re microscopically identical to when they were fresh.

Finds Liaison Officer Richard Henry has led the exciting quest to discover more about the find. He brought in a team to excavate the site of the discovery, led by David Roberts of Historic England and with the Assistant County Archaeologist, members of the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group and the finders. Richard then brought in more experts, including Dr Ruth Pelling of Historic England and Dr Michael Grant who identified the plant remains and pollen. Peter Marshall, also of Historic England, coordinated the radiocarbon dating of the flowers and undertook analysis of the results. [...]

Richard Henry said “Such discoveries should be left in situ to allow full archaeological study of the find and its context. The finders did not clean or disturb the vessels which has allowed us to undertake detailed further research. If the vessels had been cleaned none of this research would have been possible”

Ruth Pelling commented that “It has been an absolute pleasure to examine this unique assemblage. By combining the plant macro and pollen evidence we have been able to identify the time of year the vessels were buried, the packing material used, the nature of the surrounding vegetation and the likely date of burial.”

Radiocarbon dating of the plants by Historic England found they were buried between 380 and 550 A.D., a turbulent time when the Romans were in retreat or just plain gone (Emperor Honorius pulled the last legions from Britain in 410 A.D.) and the Anglo-Saxons began spreading through England from their strongholds in the south and east.

Hoards from this period are generally thought to have been buried to keep them safe from Saxon raids. Roman copper vessels were relatively common household goods during more prosperous times, but at the remote ends of empire after the collapse of Roman rule they would certainly have been hoardworthy. The plant material packed inside the vessels consists mainly of knapweed flowers (23 knapweed flowers, to be specific, two of them black knapweed) and pinnules and stem fragments of bracken. There are also cowslip, buttercup and sedge seeds. The seeds indicate the hoard was packed and buried in the mid to late summer out of doors in a location with both pasture and farmland.

Why the plant material was included is more mysterious. They could have been simple packing material. There was hay in the mix, too, so the plants may have been the far less annoying 5th century equivalent of styrofoam peanuts. They may also have been a votive offering. It’s notable that the hoard was buried on the boundary between Roman and Angle territory, a dangerous frontier at that time and a hotspot of upheaval during the transition from Roman rule, the kind of place where you would have good reason to appeal to higher powers for protection.

The plants and seeds were donated to the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes where they have been and will continue to be studied and analyzed. Some of the flowers are now on display at the museum. Experts were able to study the vessels, but the metal detectorists have chosen to keep them instead of donating them along with the plant materials. They can make that choice because the 1996 Treasure Act doesn’t define ancient artifacts made of base metals as treasure.

This is the same loophole that allowed the sale of the exceptional Crosby Garrett Helmet to an anonymous private collector. If there are two or more prehistoric artifacts, they count as treasure even if made of base metal. If an artifact is between prehistoric and 300 years old, it has to be composed of at least 10% gold or silver to qualify as treasure. It’s a nonsensical standard, particularly for archaeology where a literal bag of feces can be of inestimable value. Also, the finders can’t possibly be qualified to conserve very delicate ancient metalwork. The cauldron, for instance, is fragmentary, with the base, the little that remains of the body and the rim all in separate pieces.

The plants and bronze vessels have been together for 1500+ years. As a group, they are a great archaeological treasure. I hope the finders have a change of heart and reunite these longtime companions.

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Bronze Age weapons hoard found in Scotland

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a hoard of Bronze Age weapons of international significance in Carnoustie, Angus, eastern Scotland. The property at Newton Farm was bought by the Angus Council last year with the stipulation that it be dedicated to community use. Because an earlier dig in the area in 2004 had found evidence of extensive prehistoric and medieval remains, the council also had to ensure the site was excavated to recover any archaeological remains before construction. GUARD Archaeology were contracted to excavate the site.

In a shallow pit, the team unearthed a bronze spearhead next to a bronze sword, a pin and scabbard fittings. Decorated with gold ornamentation, the bronze spearhead is an incredibly rare object. Only a handful of Bronze Age spears of this type have been found in Britain and Ireland. One of them was discovered in a weapons hoard in 1963 at a farm just miles away from Carnoustie, so that means that out of the few gold-decorated bronze spearheads known, two of them were found in Angus. This suggests the area had a significant a wealthy warrior class around 1000 B.C.

Since the bronze weapons are around 3,000 years old, the metalwork is very fragile. To ensure these delicate artifacts could be excavated with all necessary caution in a protected environment, the soil surrounding the pit was cut out and the entire 175-pound block was removed to the GUARD Archaeology Finds Lab. There conservators analyzed the block to develop an excavation plan that would safely preserve the finds.

These few seconds of video convey how painstaking the process of excavation was:

The en bloc excavation proved even wiser when organic remains were found in the hoard. The leather and wood scabbard, while broken into several fragments, is the best preserved Bronze Age scabbard ever discovered in Britain. Textile fragments were found around the pin and scabbard; fur around the spearhead. These kinds of materials almost never survive outside of waterlogged or arid environments.

Another great archaeological boon to this hoard is that it was unearthed within the confines of a Late Bronze Age settlement. It’s not isolated on the edge of a ploughed field where all we can find about the hoard’s history is in the hoard itself. It’s part of a much wider context. The team unearthed the remains of around 12 roundhouses, probably from the Bronze Age, and other large pits holding what appears to be refuse (broken pottery, lithics). About 650 artifacts were discovered from the Bronze Age settlement. Most of the finds give a date range of between 2200 and 800 B.C. for the Bronze Age occupation of the site.

There were people living there long before the Bronze Age, though. Archaeologists found the remains of two rectilinear structures dating to the Neolithic. The oldest dates to around 4000 B.C., and it too is a testament to the area’s prehistoric prominence. It’s the largest Neolithic hall ever found in Scotland. There is no clear evidence of continuous occupation, so the site could have been inhabited from the Stone Age through the Late Bronze Age, or successive settlements could have been built on the site with gaps of centuries between them.

The site is slated to be converted into two grass soccer fields, as per the community use requirement, and construction will begin at the end of the month. The excavation of the larger site will continue.

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Neolithic “enigma” out of storage and on display

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

The National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, has taken one of their most curious artifacts out of storage and put it on display. It’s a Neolithic statuette carved out of granite about 7,000 years ago. It is 36 centimeters (14 inches) high and has a pointed, beak-like nose, a rounded torso with a prominent belly and thick, irregularly cylindrical legs. There are no arms, no genitalia or breasts to indicate sex, no facial features other than the pointy nose. I think he looks like the secret illegitimate love child of Sam the Eagle and the Shmoo.

Its design, material, great age and unknown origin make it an intriguing archaeological mystery. Museum curators call the figurine a 7,000-year-old enigma.

“It could depict a human-like figure with a bird-like face, or a bird-like entity which has nothing to do with man but with the ideology and symbolism of the Neolithic society,” Katya Manteli, an archaeologist with the museum, told Reuters.

Experts also cannot be sure of its provenance, as it belongs to a personal collection. They assume only that it is from the northern Greek regions of Thessaly or Macedonia.

Unlike most Neolithic figurines made of soft stone, it is carved out of hard rock even though metal tools were not available at the time.

And while it is too short for a life-size depiction of the human figure, it is bigger than most Neolithic statues, which are rarely found over 35 cm tall.

“Regarding technique and size, it is among the rare and unique works of the Neolithic period in Greece,” Manteli said.

It’s possible that the lack of sex characteristics and detailed features are a practical limitation of having to carve hard granite with stone tools. It could also be incomplete, although the high gloss polish indicates this is a finished piece.

There are more than 200,000 objects kept in permanent storage at the National Archaeological Museum. This charming Neolithic fellow is one of the treasures pulled from the storeroom for The Unseen Museum, an exhibition that gives the bench players a chance to start the game for once. It runs through March 26th of this year.

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Odd animal burials found under Shrewsbury church

Monday, February 13th, 2017

An excavation around a medieval church in Sutton Farm, Shrewsbury, has unearthed the remains of a previous Anglo-Saxon church and a series of unusual animal burials that may be pre-Christian. The Church of the Holy Fathers, as it is now known, was bought from the Church of England by the Greek Orthodox Church in 1994. Built in the late 12th, early 13th century, the church had been abandoned in the late 19th century and was being used as a storage shed. The Greek Orthodox Church restored the nearly derelict Grade II-listed building and a congregation has worshipped there ever since.

The field on the west side of the church is slated for development — it will be a parking lot for a 300-home estate — and a team from Baskerville Archaeological Services was contracted to excavate the site before construction began. By the terms of the planning contract, developers Taylor Wimpey funded an archaeological survey of the parking lot site from late summer until November. The Greek Orthodox Church stepped in to fund an extension of the excavation and developers gave the archaeologists more time to explore the site.

They were able to unearth foundations of the current medieval church extending 20 feet from the modern-day walls, indicating that this small church was once much larger. Next to the medieval foundations and between 15 and 18 inches deeper under the soil, archaeologists found the stone foundations of an earlier building which they believe to be an Anglo-Saxon church. Several artifacts were discovered in a rubble pile: three garnet pins, a carved stone of indeterminate age and two coins, one of them a Charles I half farthing minted between 1624 and 1635.

The very last day of the dig on the west side, the team unearthed a 15-section of a wooden post, likely a door post, in the layer believed to be Anglo-Saxon. This was a key discovery, because wood can be radiocarbon dated to confirm or deny whether the earlier structure does date to the Anglo-Saxon period.

On the south side of the church, archaeologists found more foundations of the medieval church. These indicate the church had a transept, the arms on either side of the nave that form the traditional cross shape. They also discovered the medieval graveyard. The remains of three people were unearthed, including an intact skeleton of a woman buried in shroud, but that’s to be expected in a churchyard. Less expected were the elaborate animal burials: the skeletons of a calf and a pig carefully posed together with yin-yang symmetry, a Stone Age flint found between the ribs of the calf, the skeletal remains of a pig laid to rest in a leather-covered wood coffin, the bones of a large female dog that died during whelping found next to the bones of six chickens, a pregnant goat and what appear to be the bones of one more dog and a large bird. Those last two have yet to be fully excavated.

“It was a huge surprise to find these burials in a church graveyard. To find animals buried in consecrated ground is incredibly unusual because it would have been a big no no,” [Janey Green, from Baskerville Archaeological Services,] said. “The bones don’t show any signs of butchery and the animals appear to have been deliberately and carefully laid in the ground.”

“The site is a few hundred metres from known prehistoric human burial mounds so they may be connected. Initially I thought I may have come across a whimsical Victorian burial of a beloved pet. But the Victorians usually left objects in the graves such as a collar, a letter or a posie of flowers and we haven’t found a shred of evidence of anything like that here. Neither is there evidence that the animals were fallen farm stock that were disposed of in modern times.”

Green thinks these are likely pre-Christian burials. The bones will have to be carbon dated before we can know, and it doesn’t look like they have the budget for it at this point. They’re working on it.

The parking lot is still going forward. Taylor Wimpey have agreed to seal the medieval foundations under a geotextile membrane before pouring the asphalt. This will protect them from damage and make them more easily accessible should someone in the future pick the archaeological remains over the parking lot. Meanwhile, the excavations on the south side of the church will continue. The remains, both human and animal, will be reburied at the church in a special funerary service.

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The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra online

Sunday, February 12th, 2017


Palmyra, the crossroads of civilizations, prosperous center of trade between the Silk Road and Europe from the 3rd century B.C. under the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom through the 3rd century A.D. under the Roman Empire, is no stranger to wartime destruction. Emperor Aurelian razed the city in 273 when it rebelled against his rule. He pillaged its temples and used their treasures to decorate his temple to the sun god Sol in Rome. Enough survived to make Palmyra’s monumental ruins some of the most extensive and dramatic in the Greco-Roman world, and when European visitors started writing about the spectacular remains starting in 1696 with Abednego Seller’s The Antiquities of Palmyra, Palmyrene structures like the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, the tower tombs and the Great Colonnade became icons of classical architecture and inspired Western artists, poets and architects.

One of those artists was Louis-François Cassas (1756-1827) who made highly detailed drawings of the ruins of Palmyra in 1785. Cassas spent a month in Palmyra, recording all of the ancient ruins he saw. As an architect, Cassas had a keen eye for sculptural features which gave his renderings a precision matched by none of his predecessors in the voyage pittoresque tradition of illustrated travel accounts. His drawings of Palmyra, detailed views of ornamental features, architectural elevations and reconstructions illustrated his own travel account, Voyage Pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phenicie, de la Palestine, et de la Basse Egypte, published beginning in 1799.

Following in Cassas footprints but using a new medium was Louis Vignes (1831-1896), a French career naval officer and a photographer. In 1863, Vignes was assigned to accompany Honoré Théodore d’Albert, duc de Luynes, on a scientific expedition to Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Luynes was an avid amateur archaeologist and antiquarian, an expert in Damascus steel and a patron of the arts with a particular taste for commissioning works in the classical style. The year before the expedition, the duke had donated his vast collection of antiquities — coins, Greek vases, medallions, intaglio gemstones — to France’s Cabinet des Médailles, and as an immensely wealthy aristocrat with a passel of big titles, when Luynes demanded that the French government provide him with a naval officer for his voyage, he got what he wanted.

Vignes was a particularly good choice for a mission that would encounter numerous archaeological remains, because he had been trained by pioneering photographer Charles Nègre and could be of as much help to the duke on dry land as he was on the seas. Luynes’ primary objective was to do one of the first scientific explorations of the Dead Sea. From the Dead Sea, the expedition traveled the Jordan River Valley, the mountains of Moab and the full length of the Wadi Arabah to the Gulf of Aqaba. Over the 10 months of the expedition, they also visited Palmyra and Beirut where Vignes took pictures of the ancient ruins.

The scientific report of the expedition, Voyage d’exploration à la mer Morte, à Petra, et sur la rive gauche du Jourdain, wasn’t published until 1875, eight years after Luynes’ death. Vignes photos of the Dead Sea were included in the publication, but by then Vignes had long since cut to the chase. He hooked up with his old mentor Charles Nègre to develop and print the negatives Vignes had taken in Beirut and Palmyra. The albumen prints were given to the duc de Luynes before his death in 1867. The Vignes photographs are the earliest known pictures of the Greco-Roman remains in Palmyra.

They have taken on even more significance in the light of recent events. Palmyra’s ruins have been devastated in the Syrian Civil War, bombed and shelled by everyone, deliberately destroyed by IS ostensibly out of iconoclastic fervor, although their real motivation, I think, is to taunt the world into multiple impotent rage strokes; cultural heritage destruction as a brutal mass troll. The temples of Bel and Baalshamin were blown up, as were three of the best preserved tower tombs, the Arch of Triumph on the east end of the Great Colonnade and, if recent reports bear out, the tetrapylon and part of the Roman theater.

In 2015, with the monstrous savaging of Palmyra’s ancient monuments well underway, the Getty Research Institute acquired an album of 47 of Vignes’ original photos taken in Palmyra and Beirut. That album was digitized — the pictures can be browsed here — as were 58 additional Vignes prints from the duc de Luynes’ personal collection.

Now the Getty Research Institute has enlisted its Vignes photographs, Cassas drawings and other important sources in an online exhibition dedicated to history of Palmyra.

The online exhibition draws heavily from the Getty Research Institute’s collections as well as art in museum and library collections all over the world. The exhibition explores the site’s early history, the far-reaching influence of Palmyra in Western art and culture, and the loss, now tremendous and irrevocable, of the ruins that for centuries stood as a monument to a great city and her people.

“The devastation unleashed in Syria today forces a renewed interpretation of the early prints and photographs of this extraordinary world heritage site.” said Getty Research Institute curator Frances Terpak. “They gain more significance as examples of cultural documents that
can encourage a deeper appreciation of humanity’s past achievements. Understanding Palmyra through these invaluable accounts preserves its memory and connects us with its grandeur and enduring legacy.”

The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra is the Getty Research Institute’s first online exhibition and it’s beautifully curated. I hope it’s the first of many to come.

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