Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Horse mounting block is 2nd c. Roman carving

Tuesday, January 5th, 2021

A slab of marble used for a decade as a horse mounting block in a stable in Wiltshire, England, has been identified as a 2nd century A.D. dedication from somewhere in the Roman Empire’s territories in Greece or Asia Minor. How it got there is a mystery.

Carved and inscribed slab from 2nd century A.D. used as horse mounting block. Photo courtesy Woolley and Wallis.The slab was first discovered two decades ago in the garden of a bungalow in Whiteparish, but at the time the owner didn’t realize it was anything but a usefully heavy hunk of stone among many in the rockery. She eventually moved it to her stables and used it as a booster step. It wasn’t until recently that she noticed there was a laurel wreath carved into the slab. An archaeologist then examined it, rediscovering its ancient inscription.

There are two wreaths, respectively encircling the words “people” and “young men” written in Greek. Beneath the laurels the inscription reads “Demetrios (son) of Metrodoros (the son) of Leukios.” It’s a dedication from the people and young men of wherever this came from to the honor of Demetrios. The language and style of writing date it to one of imperial Rome’s Greek-speaking provinces.

Tracing its origins and movements will be a challenge. The owner has put the slab up for auction at Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury which has launched an appeal to the public for any information about its past.

“Artefacts of this type often came into England as the result of Grand Tours in the late 18th and 19th century, when wealthy aristocrats would tour Europe learning about Classical art and culture,” explained Antiquities specialist Will Hobbs at Woolley and Wallis. “We assume that is how it entered the UK, but what is a complete mystery is how it ended up in a domestic garden, and that’s where we’d like the public’s help.”

The bungalow on Common Road in Whiteparish was one of several built in the mid 1960s and the auctioneers are hoping that someone who perhaps lived in the area at the time, or who worked on the construction, might recall the origins of some of the rubble used.

“There are several possibilities of where the stone might have originated,” continued Hobbs. “Both Cowesfield House and Broxmore House were very close to Whiteparish and were demolished in 1949 after having been requisitioned by the army during the war. But we also know that the house at what is now Paulton’s Park was destroyed by fire in 1963 and so possibly rubble from there was reused at building sites in the area shortly afterwards.”

The slab was originally scheduled to go under the hammer at a February 16th antiquities sale, but the all auctions for January and February have been postponed for the time being. The pre-sale estimate is £10,000-15,000 ($13,600-20,400).


Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany

Monday, January 4th, 2021

A preventative archaeology excavation in Plougonvelin, a city on the westernmost tip of Brittany, has unearthed an important necropolis from the early Bronze Age. More than 50 burials have been discovered so far, ranging in date from 2000 to 1600 B.C. This is the first Bronze Age funerary complex of this magnitude ever found in Brittany, a region famed for its Bronze Age tumuli.

The presence of prehistoric graves in Plougonvelin has been known since the 1950s, enough that archaeologists suspected there might be a necropolis. A team from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) began excavating the site of a planned real estate development in October 2020. In two months, INRAP excavated a half-acre of ground, unearthing 55 burials of notable architectural variety. There are cist tombs, wood caskets, cist tombs containing wood caskets, cairns, ones with its stone slab cover still in place, and at least one jar burial, likely of an infant.

The graves are arranged and organized in a deliberate manner. Sets of tombs alternate with empty spaces suggesting the deceased were grouped in a meaningful way. The groupings do not appear to have been chronological. Archaeologists believe the concentrations of burials reflect family or community ties.

The tombs are in good condition, and analysis of the rocks used to create them has found that the stone was locally sourced. The contents are a little worse for wear. Even the most carefully positioned stones and slabs allowed water and silt to penetrate over the millennia. Between infiltration of sediment and the highly acidic soil, the skeletal remains were dissolved.

Only one of the stone tombs retained enough structural integrity to preserve the skeleton of the deceased. The bones belonged to an adult woman positioned on her right side in fetal position. Her body had been placed in an organic coffin — perhaps a basket-like material — before burial in the stone tomb. The organic container has decomposed, but its ghost remains in the imprint of her body left in a layer of hardened sand.

That bottom sand layer is found in most of the cists. It was an intentional deposition, not infiltration of the elements. The Bronze Age Bretons lined the tombs with sea sand. The consistency of the feature suggests a symbolic or ritual reference to the sea which is just a few blocks away.

No surviving grave goods have been found, and in their absence establishing a chronology of the burial ground will be challenging. Researchers will study the arrangement and typology of the burials and compare them to other Bronze Age necropoli. The skeletal remains of the woman will also be studied with DNA and stable isotope analysis.


Late Roman cisterns found in Metropolis

Sunday, January 3rd, 2021

Four Roman-era cisterns have been unearthed at the ancient Ionian city of Metropolis (no really) 25 miles southeast of Izmir in western Turkey. They date to the late Roman, early Byzantine period around 1,500 years ago and had an estimated combined water capacity of 600 tons. The cisterns were found preserved in excellent condition under more than 20 feet of fill.

The cisterns were built adjacent to each other in the acropolis, the highest part of the terraced hilltop city, for use as reservoirs in case a siege cut off access to the lower city’s water supply. The cisterns had thick fortified walls to protect the precious resource and would have supplied drinking water to residents, irrigation to fields and water to the public baths.

Professor Serdar Aybek from Manisa Celal Bayar University’s Archeology Department touched upon the importance of the new findings.

“We are excited to open a new door to the daily lives of ancient people that lived in the region 1,500 years ago. The new discovery of four cisterns in the acropolis prove the skills of the ancient masters of Metropolis in the field of water engineering,” he told Demirören News Agency (DHA). […]

“(We) estimate that the cisterns supplied water to the entire settlement on the lower slopes of the acropolis, and particularly to the upper bathhouse structure. The cisterns, which are approximately three floors tall, are also of great importance in terms of being the best-preserved monuments in Metropolis,” Aybek said.

The excavation of the cistern area has revealed large quantities of animal bones and pottery fragments. They are likely medieval and indicate the cisterns were used as giant dumpsters in the 12th and 13th centuries, which at least partially explains how these structures were so buried deeply.

The earliest evidence of human occupation at Metropolis dates to the Neolithic era. In the Bronze Age it was part of the kingdom of Arzawa that became a Hittite vassal state in the 14th century B.C., albeit a restless one. It joined forces with Mycenaean Greece against the Hittites several times, and Mycenaean cultural influence is evident in the remains of pottery discovered at the site. In the Hellenistic era it was part of the kingdom of Pergamum which was bequeathed by its last king Attalus III to the Roman Republic in 133 B.C. Under Rome, Metropolis expanded Most of the earliest surviving structures of the city date to the Hellenistic and Roman periods.


Birdwatcher spies Britain’s largest Celtic gold coin hoard

Saturday, January 2nd, 2021

A birdwatcher in eastern England has discovered the largest hoard of Celtic gold coins ever found in Britain. The birder has been observing a glorious instance of aerial combat between a large brown buzzard and two magpies through his binoculars. When they moved out view, he glanced down and saw something in the groove of recently-ploughed soil. He picked up the circular piece, figuring it was an old metal washer, but when he wiped off the mud, he saw the glint of gold. What glittered in this case was in fact gold, a Celtic full stater from the middle of the 1st century.

After he spotted a second one a couple of feet away, the birdwatcher switched to another of his avid hobbies, running home to fetch his metal detector. He scanned the area where he had found the two coins and quickly found another two gold coins. Then he got a particularly a strong signal and began to dig down. Just 18 inches under the surface, he unearthed another circular object. It looked like a copper bracelet, but when he pulled it up a shower of gold fell on him like he was Danae. The circle was actually the rim of Roman vase or jug that had been filled with coins and buried.

Alas, the finder did not stop what he was doing to alert archaeologists. He filled two large shopping bags with what are estimated to be around 1,300 gold coins and walked home with them. He then called in the find to the coroner’s office. The coins are now being assessed before the inquest that will declare them treasure under the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act. As far as monetary value goes, each coin could be worth up to $880 dollars, depending on condition.

This is a new record for a Celtic gold coin hoard. The previous record-holder was a hoard of 850 coins discovered at Wickham Market, Suffolk, in 2008.


Roman road remains found in Northumberland

Friday, January 1st, 2021

Remains of an important early Roman road in Northumberland have been discovered during water main work in Settlingstones. Northumbrian Water crews came across the a compacted layer of cobbles which the archaeologists observing the work recognized as the foundation underlay of the 1st century A.D. Stanegate road, Roman Britain’s first northern frontier.

Philippa Hunter, senior projects officer at Archaeological Research Services Ltd, said: […]

“Here, the road was constructed using rounded cobbles set in a layer measuring around 15cm deep, with around 25cm of gravel surfacing laid on top.

“We are confident the remains identified form an important part of the early northern Roman frontier.

“There are strong indicators that the remains identified could have once been marched upon by Roman soldiers almost 2,000 years ago.”

The Stanegate was built between 77 and 85 A.D. to link the forts of Corstopitum (modern-day Corbridge) and Luguvalium (modern-day Carlisle), east to west along the northern frontier with Scotland. Between the two terminus points, the road also ran through the fort of Vindolanda, then in its first stage of construction with only wood structures, and Nether Denton.

Its original Latin name is unknown (Stanegate is Old English for “stone road”), but despite the lack of surviving documentation, the road was an important connector between the River Tyne and River Eden. It facilitated the movement of troops and supplies during the Roman push to conquer northern Britain, which reached its greatest penetration into Calendonia under governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola in the 80s A.D. The northern tribes eventually pushed the Romans into retreating back to the Stanegate line by 117 A.D. and new forts were added to add defensive strength to what was Britain’s first northern frontier. A new more intimidating boundary line was established when construction began on Hadrian’s Wall a few miles to the north of the road in 122 A.D.

While it was superseded as a frontier system, the Stanegate continued to be the major road in the area and the sole direct access to the forts and settlements at Hadrian’s Wall. It is documented as having been intact and in active use in the 7th century. It formed the foundation of a medieval built over it, but neglect led to its decline, and by the 18th century is was largely impassable to vehicular traffic. It was replaced by a new Military Road built after the 1745 Siege of Carlisle in the Jacobite uprising. The largest section of the Stanegate still surviving today runs from Fourstones on the River South Tyne to Vindolanda eight miles to its west.


Imperial Han tomb identified in central China

Wednesday, December 30th, 2020

A stone vessel found in the remains of a large mausoleum in Luoyang, central China’s Henan Province, has confirmed the tomb belonged to Eastern Han Dynasty emperor Liu Zhi (r. 146 – 168 A.D.). Archaeologists have thought the tomb complex was Liu Zhi’s based on reports in ancient chronicles, but until now there was no archaeological evidence for the contention.

According to the latest excavation, the 25-cm-tall basin-shaped vessel with a diameter of 80 cm was found inscribed with a manufacturing year — the third year of Guanghe, or AD 180.

Wang Xianqiu, an associate researcher of the Luoyang City Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, said Guanghe was a reign title of Liu Zhi’s successor Liu Hong, and the stone vessel was produced when Liu Hong was building the mausoleum for Liu Zhi.

“Together with the previous documents about the location of the emperor’s tomb, the discovery makes us almost certain that it is the tomb of emperor Liu Zhi,” said Wang, who led the excavation project of the mausoleum.

Luoyang was the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 A.D.) and its location on the banks of the Luo River, a tributary of the Yellow River, held religious significance as well as economic value. Since excavations at the Eastern Han cemetery site in Luoyang’s Baicaopo Village began in 2017, more than 100 tombs dating back as far as 2,200 years ago have been discovered at the site on the south bank of the Luo. Originally on a platform above the river, the tombs were submerged when the river flooded this summer, washing away the platform and taking half the riverbank with it. They resurfaced after the water level dropped, but their condition is precarious and it’s not clear how best for archaeologists intervene.

The imperial mausoleum is a huge building complex in the northeast corner of the Baicaopo cemetery. It can be divided into three sections, each with their own walls and gates independent of each other. The buildings are arranged on a grid of courtyards and include the remains of houses, patios, wells, roads, drainage channels and other facilities found in inhabited towns. Ancient literature suggests these sites were inhabited by the living — cemetery administrators, guards, service personnel, low-ranking concubines, or perhaps nobles appointed to keep vigil over the tomb of the deceased emperor. The emperor himself was buried under ground in a palace for the dead.


Fast food Pompeii style

Sunday, December 27th, 2020

A richly frescoed thermopolium, the Roman version of a street food stand, has been fully excavated and will open to the public starting Easter 2021. The cafeteria-style establishment is exceptionally intact, from frescoes painted on the front of an L-shaped counter to the earthenware pots still containing the remains of the snack bar’s last dishes. People ate out a lot in Pompeii. Eighty thermopolia have been found there, but this is the first one to be excavated in its entirety.

It was first discovered during stabilization work at the corner of the Alley of the Balconies and the Alley of the Silver Wedding in the Regio V neighborhood in 2019. The counter fresco of a nereid riding a sea horse was the first to emerge. A fresco on the shorter side of the counter depicted a counter with amphorae leaning against it and covered pots on top. Actual amphorae were discovered in front of the counter, mirroring the painted image which was likely a commercial sign of sorts.

The quality and preservation of the frescoed counter was so exceptional that archaeologists returned this year to excavate the site thoroughly and reveal the complete environment. This year’s phase of the dig unearthed another arm of the counter which was also adorned with frescoes. There were two panels framed in a black border: one wide one with two deceased ducks hanging upside down and a rooster against an architectural background, and the second with a black dog on a leash.

The ducks and chicken represent the wares offered at the cafeteria. The dog fresco has an obscene graffito inscribed into the black border. It reads “Nicia cineadecacator,” an insult to one Nicia (probably a freedman of Greek origin) calling him a shitter and an “invert”. Maybe Nicia was the owner of the establishment?

Bone fragments inside the vessels embedded into the countertops provide evidence of the bill of fare at the restaurant, including a mixed pork, goat, bird, fish and snail dish along the lines of a paella. A duck bone confirms that the mallard fresco was a menu item. One of the dolia contained wine residue and the remains of ground fava beans. The 1st century Roman cookbook Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria instructs that that bean meal and eggs whites should be added to “clarify muddy wine.” Long, vigorous stirring with a whip and an overnight soak apparently altered the taste and lightened the color of questionable vintages.

The skeletons of two individuals trapped and killed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, were discovered on the premises. The bones were jumbled, disturbed by looter tunnels dug in the 17th century. One set belonged to an adult about 50 years of age who was lying down on a bed or cot when the pyroclastic flow hit him. The nails and wood fragments from his bed were found under his remains. The bones of a second individual were found inside a large dolium (storage vessel) and may have been stashed there by the looters.

A complete dog skeleton was found in the northwestern corner of the room between two doors. It was the fierce lupine guardian in the fresco, but a tiny canine companion no more than 10 inches tall. This was an adult animal and is not of a known local breed. It was likely a imported toy breed.

Inside the thermopolium were a total of nine amphorae, one bronze patera, two flasks and a tabletop ceramic olla (cooking pot). The floor of the space was a layer of cocciopesto (waterproof flooring made of terracotta fragments) with embedded pieces of polychrome marble.

The analysis of the remains — human, animal, culinary — is ongoing. A multi-disciplinary team of archaeozoologists, archaeobotanists, geologists and vulcanologists will study the material that has been recovered.


1,400-year-old brick tomb found in Vietnam

Monday, December 21st, 2020

A 1,400-year-old brick-lined tomb has been unearthed during construction of a drainage ditch in the commune of Xuan Hong, in central Vietnam’s Ha Yinh province. Workers discovered the arch structure of the tomb six feet under the surface in Village 2 of the rural commune and alerted the local heritage authorities.

The brickwork identifies it as a Han style tomb created during the rule of the Chinese Sui-Tang Dynasty (602-905). It is 13 feet long, three feet wide and four feet high, but the tomb was damaged during construction so what remains is only a part of it. The roof comes to a pointed arch formed by layers of bricks.

Some locals in the commune said they had found similar tombs in their gardens or during the process of building houses.

Many others said the same type of Han graves had been found in other localities in Ha Tinh.

The discovery of the ancient tomb in Xuan Hong Commune has created favourable conditions for archaeologists to study more about the Han tombs in Ha Tinh.

Han style brick tomb, ca. 1,400 years old. Photo by Bách Khoa. Detail of brick layers in arched dome of tomb. Photo by Bách Khoa.


Restored Mausoleum of August opens in March

Sunday, December 20th, 2020

On March 1st, 2021, the Mausoleum of Augustus will open to the public again after 14 years of closure, decades more of neglect and centuries of assorted mutilations. Visitors will have to reserve their slots online (advanced bookings can be made starting Monday) and entry will be free until April 21st, Rome’s birthday. For residents of Rome, entry will free for all of 2021. Starting April 21st, visitors will enjoy new VR content added to the tour. If it’s anything like as good as the VR experience at the Domus Aurea, that will definitely be worth waiting for, particularly since so much of the ancient structure and contents are lost.

At 295 feet in diameter, Augustus’ Mausoleum was then and is still today the largest circular tomb in the world. More than 135 feet high at its peak, it towered over the Campus Martius, even eclipsing the height of the nearby Pincian Hill. It was the first dynastic tomb in Rome and the only one until Hadrian copied his predecessor and built what is now the iconic Castel Sant’Angelo.

Augustus buried a lot of his family in the new tomb before his remains joined them in 14 A.D. Claudius was the last of the Julian-Claudian emperors buried there in 54 A.D. The last emperor whose remains were honored with inclusion in Augustus’ mausoleum was Nerva in 98 A.D. (Vespasian was in there for a second but only temporarily.) The tomb was one of Rome’s most important landmarks until it was looted in 410 A.D. when the Visigoths sacked Rome.

In the centuries after that it was stripped, fortified, burned, excavated, landscaped, converted into an arena for animal fights and a theater for Rome’s orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Mussolini tore all of that down in the misguided attempt to return the mausoleum to its original state, only of course he didn’t know what he was doing and ended up damaging it far more than the Visigoths and buffalo fights ever did. By the 70s it was so structurally unsound that it had to be closed off and the piazza was used as a bus terminus.

As ever in Rome, plans for restoration were bandied about for years before they finally became reality in 2017. At that time the projected completion date was 2019. That came and went. Then this year did the thing this year did, so really it’s something of a miracle that the Mausoleum of Augustus will open in early 2021. The last step the city has to take to complete the plan for the piazza is to move the bus terminus elsewhere. Once that’s done, Piazzale Augusto Imperatore will be pedestrian only and Augustus’ tomb and the Ara Pacis next to it will be a comfy stroll.

The mausoleum website has a misnamed “virtual experience” that will have to do for the rest of us right now. It’s the history of the tomb arranged in chapters against the backdrop of a few barely-animated models of the mausoleum at different times in its history. The content can be accessed by dragging your mouse around a lot or via menu in the upper left of the screen and dragging your mouse around a little. Within the chapters you can navigate using the Previous and Next buttons.

Chapter 1 is a truncated mini-bio of Augustus with brief blurbs about his childhood, his adoption by Julius Caesar and the appearance of a comet considered a portent of Caesar’s divinity. Chapter 2 is about the construction of the mausoleum. It’s short on detail, but it does effectively explain how Augustus started work on it when he was just 30 years old in the wake of his victory over Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium. It was a declaration of Augustus’ undying loyalty to Rome, in contrast to Antony’s final direction in his will that he be buried with Cleopatra in Alexandria.

Highlights of the rest of the “experience” are Chapter 3 about how the tomb and Ara Pacis defined this area of the Campus Martius in the Imperial era, Chapter 7 which covers the wrongs done to it in the Middle Ages (eg, Tiberius’ urn was used as a water bucket by monks), Chapter 9 about its conversion into an arena, and Chapter 11 about its transformation into an Art Nouveau theater in the early 20th century. There are a couple of great photographs of its interior that I had never seen before.


Oldest place name sign deciphered

Saturday, December 19th, 2020

An inscription on a rock from the late fourth millennium B.C. has been discovered to be the oldest known place name sign. The four hieroglyphs read “Domain of the Horus King Scorpion,” whose name was used in vain in several The Mummy spinoffs in the early oughts. The four symbols are a leafy plant, a scorpion, a solar disk and two concentric circles on the right. The circular hieroglyph is what marks it as a place name.

The inscribed rock was discovered two years ago in the Wadi Abu Subeira, the bed of an extinct river in the desert east of Aswan. The site is known for its profusion of Late Palaeolithic petroglyphs and is under constant threat from erosion and mining activities. Archaeological exploration of the location is still in comparative infancy. University of Bonn researchers led by Egyptologist Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz have been working with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities for several years to document ancient and prehistoric rock carvings.

There are very few sources about the political, social and economic conditions under which people lived more than five thousand years ago. “This is precisely why the new discovery of the rock inscription is so valuable,” says the Egyptologist. The very early use of the cultural practice of writing in this rather remote place is unusual for the fourth millennium B.C. Despite its brevity, the inscription opens a window into the world of the emergence of the Egyptian state and the culture associated with it. Morenz: “For the first time, the process of internal colonization in the Nile Valley becomes more visible by writing.”

According to the researcher, Egypt was the first territorial state worldwide. “There were already ruling systems elsewhere before, but these were much smaller,” says Morenz. It has been known for some time that the north-south extension of Egypt at that time was already around 800 kilometers. “In fact, several rival population centers merged into the new central state,” says Morenz. Royal estates, known as domains, were founded on the periphery of the empire in order to consolidate the pharaonic empire. […]

Various names of economic entities (domains) are already known from smaller text carriers such as labels for goods deliveries, cylinder seals and container labels. The rock inscription makes such a royal domain tangible as a concrete archaeological place for the first time. In addition to various rock carvings, other early rock inscriptions were discovered here and found together with pottery from this period. “This area is still in the early stages of archaeological investigation,” says Morenz. The researchers see this as an opportunity to take a closer look at the momentous process of the world’s first state emergence. This included the expansion and securing of the dominion at the edges in the Nile valley and the consolidation of the then new kind of kingship.





January 2021


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