Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Hikers find first ancient petroglyphs on Montserrat

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Locals Shirley Osborne and Vaughn Barzey were hiking on the Caribbean island of Montserrat this past January when they saw some carvings on a moss-covered rock face. They reported their discovery to the authorities. Volunteers with the Montserrat National Trust, archaeology professors and students from universities in the United States and elsewhere in the Caribbean studied the carvings in the hills near the town of Soldier Ghaut (Ghaut means “abrupt ravine” in Montserratian) about five miles north of the capital city of Plymouth. Officials kept the find under wraps until researchers confirmed that they were indeed ancient petroglyphs, the first ever discovered on Montserrat.

They are stylistically similar to petroglyphs made by the indigenous Amerindians (commonly referred to as the Arawaks, archaeologically known as the Saladoid culture) on Caribbean island like St. Kitts, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, among others.

“We have Amerindian artifacts on the island, but had not seen petroglyphs,” said Sarita Francis, director of the Montserrat National Trust. “These are the first, that we know of, that have been found here.”

Initial analysis suggests Montserrat’s petroglyphs are between 1,000 and 1,500 years old, Francis said, though carbon dating will paint a clearer picture of the images’ origins.

The petroglyphs consist of geometric shapes and what may be stylized animal or human figures. One figure could be a bat. Another with two deep circles cut from the stone and a line underneath is more than a little reminiscent of a rudimentary face design. The mouth doesn’t turn up at the corners, but it still manages to look like a smiley face.

The earliest artifacts found on the island long predate the Arawaks. Flint blades, flakes and other evidence of knapping about 2,500 years old have been found in the central hills of Montserrat and judging from the style and technology of the lithic materials, archaeologists believe the first settlers came from South America between 4,000 and 2,500 years ago. This Archaic, pre-ceramic culture was displaced with the arrival of the Arawak between 500 and 300 B.C. who settled Montserrat until they in turn were displaced by the raiding Caribs (also known as the Kalinago). By the time the Spanish arrived, the Awarak had left the island and the Caribs do not appear to have settled it. The next wave of settlers came in 1642 and were predominantly Irish.

Britain’s oldest written document found in London

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

The Museum of London Archaeology’s excavation of the site of Bloomberg’s future European headquarters in central London has proven to be an even richer archaeological motherlode than we knew. Thanks to its proximity to the Thames and the waterlogged embrace of the lost Walbrook River, organic remains from the earliest days of Roman London through the 5th century were preserved in exceptional condition: entire streets, hundreds of shoes, a cavalry harness and the largest collection of fist and phallus amulets ever found. When the story broke in 2013, archaeologists had unearthed more than 100 fragments of writing tablets. That was just the beginning. In the final tally, a total of 405 wood writing tablets were found during the Bloomberg Place excavation. Only 19 tablets were discovered in London before this.

These wooden tablets were the notepads of the Roman world. Coated in a layer of blackened beeswax, the writing was scratched on the surface with a stylus, usually in cursive Latin. They were used for correspondence, contracts, financial records, school lessons, anything else that needed writing down. While the beeswax is long gone, the impression of the writing sometimes marked the wood making it possible to read the tablets. Possible, but far from easy. High resolution photography with raking light and microscopic analysis can reveal the faint markings. Even when visible, cursive Latin is no picnic to read. Cursive Latin expert Dr. Roger Tomlin was enlisted to crack the tablet code, which is very much how he sees the work.

“The Bloomberg writing tablets are very important for the early history of Roman Britain, and London in particular. I am so lucky to be the first to read them again, after more than nineteen centuries, and to imagine what these people were like, who founded the new city of London. What a privilege to eavesdrop on them: when I decipher their handwriting, I think of my own heroes, the wartime academics who worked at Bletchley Park.”

Out of the 405 tablets, 87 have been deciphered thus far, more than quadrupling the known letters from Roman London and shedding new light on the early decades of the city.

More than 1,300 wooden writing tablets have been unearthed at the fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall, most of them letters to and from the soldiers stationed there, but the earliest date to 85 AD when the first timber fort was built. The earliest of the Bloomberg tablets to include a date is a financial transaction from January 8th, 57 A.D. It reads:

“In the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, on the 6th day before the Ides of January. I, Tibullus the freedman of Venustus, have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom the matter will concern…”


It’s the oldest intrinsically dated writing in Britain and the earliest legal document. It was written less than 14 years after the conquest and three years before the Boudiccan revolt.

Another tablet is even older although its author didn’t do us the favor of dating it for us. It was stratigraphically dated to 43-53 AD, the first decade after the Roman conquest of Britain. There’s also the first written reference to Roman London, a tablet from 65-80 AD addressed to Londinio Mogontio, meaning Mogontius in London. (Mogontio only pawn in game of life.) The next reference would come 50 years later in Tactitus’ Annals 14.33 where he describes the Boudiccan revolt.


Speaking of which, one of the tablets illuminates how quickly the city of London recovered from the devastation of the insurrection. It’s a contract dated October 21st, 62 A.D., a year after the revolt, which arranges for the transportation of “twenty loads of provisions” from Verulamium (modern-day St Albans, Hertfordshire) to London, a distance of about 25 miles, by November 13th.


Almost 100 proper names of individuals from various walks of life — emperors, soldiers, a brewer, a judge, a cooper, freedmen, slaves — have been identified in the tablets. The earliest residents of Roman London were primarily soldiers and businessmen, most of them originating from Gaul and the Rhineland. One significant name mentioned is that of Julius Classicus, a nobleman of the Belgic Treveri tribe, who would go on to become a leader of the Batavian revolt (69-70 A.D.) that broke out in the province of Germania Inferior after the assassination of the emperor Nero. A few years earlier, around 65 A.D., he was the prefect of the Sixth Cohort of Nervians, an auxiliary infantry cohort in London. One Julius Classicianus, in all likelihood a relative of Classicus’, was procurator of Britain from 61 to 65 A.D. so he probably pulled a few nepotism strings to give his kinsman the commission. Before this the earliest confirmed presence of the Sixth Nervians in Britain was 122 A.D. and they were known to have remained in the province until the end of the 4th century shortly before the Roman withdrawal in 410. Now we know they were there practically from the beginning too.


Another intriguing tablet doesn’t actually say anything. Dating to around 60-62 A.D., it’s just the last two lines of the alphabet, “ABCDIIFGHIKL / MNOPQRST.” A few letter are missing. This was probably writing practice, maybe even schoolwork. If it is, it would be the first evidence of Roman schooling discovered in Britain.

The tablets were cleaned and conserved using PEG, a waxy substance that replaces the water in saturated wood preventing it from drying and cracking. They were then freeze-dried for long-term conservation. The tablets will continue to be studied at MOLA. At least one of them, the earliest intrinsically dated tablet in Britain, will be part of the permanent public exhibition in the new Bloomberg building which will display more than 700 of the 10,000+ artifacts discovered in the excavation, plus the reconstructed London Mithraeum. It’s scheduled to open in fall of 2017.

Tutankhamun’s dagger made from meteoric iron

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

When Howard Carter opened the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun and unwrapped the mummy in 1925, three years after his discovery of the tomb, he found 107 objects placed in the linen bandages. One of them was an iron dagger with a gold handle elaborately decorated with cloisonné enamel, gold granulation in geometric patterns and a crystal pommel. Its sheath was made of gold with a lily motif engraved on one side and feathers terminating in a jackal head at the peak of the sheath on the other side. It was found on his right thigh.

Iron is very rare in Egyptian tombs. Bronze was the dominant metal in funerary artifacts until the Assyrian Occupation (656-639 B.C.), 600 years after iron production became widespread elsewhere around the Mediterranean. When iron has been found in a funerary context, archaeologists have suspected it was of extra-terrestrial origin. Since it falls from the sky, it would have been seen as a direct gift from the gods. Iron meteorite impact craters have been discovered in Egypt. One found in southern Egypt in 2008 dates to within 5,000 years, so it could well have been a source of godly iron for the ancients.

It’s also possible that the iron in Tutankhamun’s dagger has more earthly origins. Iron was a byproduct of bronze and copper smelting, metals Egypt produced in abundance, and there are references in the 14th century Amarna letters to gifts of valuable iron from the King of Mitanni. There has been much debate on the question since 1925. Two studies done on the metal of the dagger had conflicting results. Iron meteorites are composed mainly of iron and nickel with trace amounts of cobalt, phosphorus, sulfur and carbon. The nickel content in iron produced from ore is no more than 4 percentage by mass (wt%), while in iron meteorites it’s at least 5 wt% and can go up to 35 wt%. The first study in 1970 found high nickel content indicative of meteoric iron, but it was never published and the methodology is unknown. A 1994 X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry analysis found a nickel content of 2.8 wt%, which is too low for meteoritic iron.

Now a new study by an international team of researchers has used state-of-the-art XRF technology to determine whether the iron in King Tutankhamun’s dagger is of meteoric origin. Italian and Egyptian researchers from the Politecnico di Milano, the University of Pisa, the Cairo Museum, the University of Fayoum, and the Politecnico di Torino compared XRF measurements of two areas of Tutankhamun’s dagger, 11 meteorites of clear composition and 11 examples of certified steel. Their analysis found that the dagger’s blade is 11 wt% nickel, which can only be meteoritic iron. The amount of cobalt, .6 wt%, is also consistent with the ratio of nickel to cobalt found in iron meteorites.

Our finding confirms that excavations of important burials, including that of King Tutankhamun, have uncovered pre-Iron Age artifacts of meteoritic origin (Johnson et al. 2013).

As the only two valuable iron artifacts from ancient Egypt so far accurately analyzed are of meteoritic origin, we suggest that ancient Egyptian attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of fine ornamental or ceremonial objects up until the 14th C. BCE. Smelting of iron, if any, has likely produced low-quality iron to be forged into precious objects. In this context, the high manufacturing quality of Tutankhamun’s dagger blade is evidence of early successful iron smithing in the 14th C. BCE. Indeed, only further in situ, nondestructive compositional analysis of other time-constrained ancient iron artifacts present in world collections, which include the other iron objects discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb, will provide significant insights into the use of meteoritic iron and into the reconstruction of the evolution of the metal working technologies in the Mediterranean.

Ancient gold wreath kept in a box under the bed

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

On June 9th, Duke’s of Dorchester auction house will be selling an ancient gold myrtle wreath kept for years in a box under a bed in Somerset. Duke’s appraiser Guy Schwinge went to the cottage to examine some of the belongings of the elderly resident. He was amazed when the owner pulled a busted old cardboard box out from under the bed, dug through the crumpled up newspaper and fished out a Hellenistic gold wreath. It’s a hoop of pure gold with gold myrtle leaves and flowers attached that obscure the hoop and give it the look of a natural myrtle wreath when seen from the front. The workmanship is very fine, with delicate veining on the leaves and details like the anthers and filaments of the flowers.

The style suggests it dates to around the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., but its exact age can’t be determined.

“It is notoriously difficult to date gold wreaths of this type. Stylistically it belongs to a rarefied group of wreaths dateable to the Hellenistic period and the form may indicate that it was made in Northern Greece,” [said Guy Schwinge].

“It is eight inches across and weighs about 100 grams. It’s pure gold and handmade, it would have been hammered out by a goldsmith.

“The wreath is in very nice condition for something that’s 2,300 years old. It’s a very rare antiquity to find, they don’t turn up often. I’ve never seen one in my career before.”

I’ve never seen an ancient Hellenistic gold wreath with those hoops at the end of the circlet before. The current owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, inherited the piece from his grandfather. He doesn’t know anything about it. He is quoted in the article saying that his grandfather traveled extensively in the 1940s and 1950s, including in northwest Greece near the border, but the Duke’s auction catalogue says it was acquired by the seller’s grandfather in the 1930s.

It’s all a bit shady, especially since according to the article there are still bits of dirt embedded in the wreath. Dirt suggests recent excavation, not something that was bought legitimately 60, 70 or even 80 years ago. Gold wreaths are expensive, small and portable which makes them highly desirable to looters. In 2006 the Getty had to return one they had bought in 1993 from a “Swiss private collection,” ie, a gang of Greek smugglers, to Greece. In 2012 traffickers were caught red-handed trying the sell a looted gold wreath in Greece. On the other hand, there are plenty of nooks and crannies in the hammered sheet gold for dirt to nestle in for the long haul. If it was never professionally cleaned, it’s possible that some of the soil from its burial place stuck over decades.

It almost certainly was deliberately buried as a funerary offering. Wreaths of braided flowers, grasses, leaves and branches were used in ancient Greece and Rome as symbols of victory, honor and sovereignty crowning the heads of Olympic athletes, generals on the battlefield, even literary giants like Ovid and Virgil. Wreaths also symbolized the ascension to immortality or apotheosis, often seen in funerary monuments held over the head of a deified emperor, for example.

Myrtle, along with laurel, palm, oak, olive, grape vines and ivy, were popular wreath motifs. The myrtle was associated with the goddess Aphrodite, symbolizing love and immortality. Myrtle wreaths were worn at weddings, by victorious athletes and by initiates into the Eleusinian mysteries. In Rome, the Corona Ovalis was given to a military commander determined by the Senate to be worthy of an ovation (a ceremony a step short of a triumph) for a victory realized without bloodshed.

Gold versions of the wreaths during the Hellenstic period were placed in graves as funerary offerings for the honored dead or dedicated to the gods in sanctuaries. They were too fragile for use as crowns or diadems in life. They are best known from the graves of Macedonian rulers — a gold myrtle wreath believed to have beloned to Meda, fifth wife of Philip II of Macedon, was found in the royal tombs at Vergina — but Hellenistic gold wreaths have been found as far afield as southern Italy and the Dardanelles.

The articles about the Somerset wreath say it could sell for as much as £100,000 ($146,000), but Duke’s is far more circumspect. The pre-sale estimate is £10,000-20,000 ($14,600-29,000).

Neanderthals built stalagmite circles 175,000 years ago

Friday, May 27th, 2016

The entrance to the Bruniquel Cave in southwest France collapsed in prehistoric times, sealing off the cave from the Pleistocene until determined local speleologists dug their way through in 1990. Inside the cave just 336 meters (1102 feet) from the entrance, they found two circular structures made of whole and broken stalagmites. Archaeologists carefully documented the site, but were unable to date it. Accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating on a burnt animal bone found nearby returned a date of older than 47,600 years ago, which pushes the outer limit of C-14 dating’s 50,000-year range. The date dangled the intriguing possibility that the stalagmite circles had been built by Neanderthals, the only people in Europe from 400,000 to 40,000 years ago when anatomically modern humans moved in and rapidly took over.

Archaeological exploration of the site ended abruptly when the lead archaeologist F. Rouzaud died prematurely in 1999, and the difficult access to the cave kept other archaeologists from picking up where he left off. In 2013, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences palaeoclimatologist Sophie Verheyden, a speleologist who has a vacation home in the area, put together a team of experts to examine the annular stalagmites structures.

Verheyden’s team found two circular structures, the larger one 6.7 × 4.5 meters (22 x 15 feet), the smaller one 2.2 × 2.1 meters (7.2 x 6.9 feet). In the center of the larger circle are two stacks of stalagmites with two more accumulation structures outside of it. In total, about 400 stalagmite pieces were used in these structures, less than 5% of them whole. Half of them are from the middle section of the stalagmites. The ones used in the large circle have a mean length of 34.4 centimeters (13.5 inches); the ones in the smaller circle have a mean length of 29.5 cm (11.6 inches).

The annular geometry is too regular to be the product of random natural breakage, and relatively regular sizes of the stalagmites, larger in the larger circle and smaller in the smaller circle, are further evidence that this is deliberate construction. The possibility that they might have been cave bear nests is eliminated by the size and inner organization of the structures. Archaeologists also found prints left where some of the stalagmites were wrenched off the cave floor and traces of fire on all six structures, 57 reddened pieces and 66 blackened ones.

Uranium-series dating of stalagmite samples and the calcite regrowth covering the structures returned dates of 175,200 to 177,100 thousand years. The dates of all the samples fell into this range. The stalagmite structures are therefore among the oldest firmly dated human constructions, and Neanderthals were the only humans in Europe at that time.

The earliest surviving evidence of constructions by anatomically modern humans — collapsed circular structures made from mammoth bones or dear antlers — date to around 20,000 years ago. Indications of earlier Neanderthal building are limited to a few postholes and remnants of dry stone walls, but they cannot be conclusively attributed to Neanderthals or conclusively dated. The great archaeological gifts of the Bruniquel Cave, therefore, are the complexity and survival of the stalagmite circles and the repeatable, reliable direct dating.

This momentous find redefines our understanding of Neanderthal culture and abilities. From the research published in Nature, which you can read in its entirety here (pdf):

The attribution of the Bruniquel constructions to early Neanderthals is unprecedented in two ways. First, it reveals the appropriation of a deep karst space (including lighting) by a pre-modern human species. Second, it concerns elaborate constructions that have never been reported before, made with hundreds of partially calibrated, broken stalagmites (speleofacts) that appear to have been deliberately moved and placed in their current locations, along with the presence of several intentionally heated zones. Our results therefore suggest that the Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought for this hominid species.

There’s a compilation of photographs and 3D animated flyover of the site in the video on this page. Alas, I cannot embed it because of cursed autoplay, but it’s well worth viewing.

Rare ancient nilometer found in Nile Delta

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Workers digging a water pump station in the ancient city of Thmuis discovered an ancient nilometer, a structure used to determine the water level of the Nile River. A team of American and Egyptian archaeologists from the University of Hawaii and the Alexandria Center for Hellenistic Studies have excavated the find and believe it dates to the 3rd century B.C. when Thmuis was an important city under the Ptolemies. Fewer than two dozen ancient nilometers have been found in Egypt, making this a very rare find.

Thmuis, near the present-day city of El-Mansoura in Lower Egypt’s Nile Delta, flourished as port city from the 4th to 1st century B.C. It became the regional capital of the nome of Kha when the course of the Nile shifted from Mendes, a famous city in antiquity which had briefly been the capital of Egypt in the early 4th century B.C. under the reign of 29th Dynasty Pharaoh Nepherites. Located just half a kilometer north of Thmuis, in the 4th and 3rd centuries Mendes began to lose population as its branch of the Nile silted over and the river that was the lifeblood of Egypt moved to Thmuis. The people followed the Nile, abandoning the ancient capital for the new one.

Situated on an eastern branch of the Nile next to Daqahliyyah Lake bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, Thmuis became an important hub of agriculture, trade and religion in the region. In the Roman era, it was of significant military importance as well. The Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus reported in The Wars of the Jews that Titus, son of the new emperor Vespasian, brought his legions to Thmuis on a fleet of long ships. He moored the ships there and marched across the Sinai Peninsula to Cesarea before laying siege to Jerusalem in early 70 A.D. during the First Jewish–Roman War.

In December of 2012, an archaeological team sponsored by the National Geographic Society began excavating an area of Thmuis where monumental architectural features, possibly the remains of a temple built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 283-246 B.C.) for his sister-wife Arsinoë II, had been discovered a few years earlier. The temple complex was on the banks of the Nile. Archaeologists believe the nilometer was part of this temple. Its discovery confirms that the Nile channel ran along the western side of Thmuis.

Priests used the nilometer to predict the extent of the annual flooding of the Nile.

Made from large limestone blocks, the nilometer was a circular well roughly eight feet (2.4 meters) in diameter with a staircase leading down into its interior. Either a channel would have connected the well to the river, or it would have simply measured the water table as a proxy for the strength of the river. Seven cubits — roughly 10 feet (3.04 meters) — was the optimum height for prosperity.

“During the time of the pharaohs, the nilometer was used to compute the levy of taxes, and this was also likely the case during the Hellenistic period,” says Robert Littman, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii. “If the water level indicated there would be a strong harvest, taxes would be higher.”

Because a weak flood meant there would be famine and an excessive one destroyed homes and drowned fields, predicting how far the waters would overflow was a matter of life and death. Thmuis residents brought offerings to the temple in the hope of winning the favor of the Nile River god. There’s a list of Greek names and associated numbers on one of the limestone blocks. Archaeologists believe they were sponsors who donated money for the construction of the nilometer.

It was in use for about 1,000 years before the course of the Nile shifted again, leaving Thmuis to suffer the depopulation that Mendes had suffered before it. Today it’s a small village, but the Nile’s ancient presence is still felt in the high water table, high enough to make it worthwhile to dig the well that unearthed the nilometer.

Roman fort built after Boudiccan revolt found in London

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

A Roman fort built in London in the aftermath of the Boudiccan uprising is shedding new light on this little-known period in the development of the capital. The site, on the edge of the early town 750 feet or so northeast of Roman-era London Bridge, was excavated by experts from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) between 1997 and 2003. They found a fort built over the ruins of commercial and residential structures destroyed in the revolt of 60/61 A.D.

Londinium was still a smaller city at the time of the uprising. It was founded after the Roman conquest of 43 A.D. so it was less than 20 years old and wasn’t an official colony yet when it fell to Boudicca. Thanks to the Thames and its direct line to maritime trade, Londinium was a growing concern with enough wealth to make it an appealing target for the Iceni. When he realized they were coming, the governor of Britannia, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, decided his scant troops could not successfully defend the city so it was better to sacrifice London and live to fight another day. He left, taking his army with him and the residents to the not-so-tender mercies of Boudicca. From Tacitus’ Annals 14:33:

Those who were chained to the spot by the weakness of their sex, or the infirmity of age, or the attractions of the place, were cut off by the enemy. Like ruin fell on the town of Verulamium, for the barbarians, who delighted in plunder and were indifferent to all else, passed by the fortresses with military garrisons, and attacked whatever offered most wealth to the spoiler, and was unsafe for defence. About seventy thousand citizens and allies, it appeared, fell in the places which I have mentioned. For it was not on making prisoners and selling them, or on any of the barter of war, that the enemy was bent, but on slaughter, on the gibbet, the fire and the cross, like men soon about to pay the penalty, and meanwhile snatching at instant vengeance.

Londinium was devastated. It was still in ruins in around 63 A.D. when the fort was built. It’s likely the fort’s aim wasn’t solely defense, but also to serve as a base for reconstruction efforts. From its size, it would have held between 500 and 800 soldiers.

Our excavations at Plantation Place for British Land on Fenchurch Street in the City of London exposed a section of a rectangular fort that covered 3.7 acres. The timber and earthwork fort had 3 metre high banks reinforced with interlacing timbers and faced with turves and a timber wall. Running atop the bank was a ‘fighting platform’ fronted by a colossal palisade, with towers positioned at the corners of the gateways. This formidable structure was enclosed by double ditches, 1.9 and 3m deep, forming an impressive obstacle for would be attackers.

Archaeologists unearthed a number of military artifacts from the site — plate armor, spears, shields, harness fittings, a partial cavalry helmet — as well as construction tools including a pick axe and hammer. They also found evidence of roads, storage facilities, a granary, a latrine, cookhouse, etc. within the fort precinct. The barracks appear to have been tents, however, not permanent buildings, and the fort was only in active use for a decade. Unlike later forts, this one was a temporary installation meant to help rebuild the city and keep the residents secure.

The fort is of great significant despite its impermanence because it is a strong indication that the Romans had picked Londinium to be the new capital. The previous provincial capital, Camulodunum, aka Colchester, does not appear to have had a similar fort built in the wake of its destruction by Boudicca. London was a practical choice. Unlike Colchester, London had easy access to the sea, ocean-going ships could go directly to the city via the Thames, and the city was new, not founded by potentially troublesome British tribes. Troops stationed at the fort provided much-needed labour and engineering expertise to rebuild roads, docks and buildings.

The Plantation Place fort was dismantled around 85 A.D. and the land it had occupied was built over with new development. Much of that was felled in the raging fire of 145 A.D., after which the area welcomed a new masonry townhouse. A hoard of gold coins was hidden in the basement around 174 A.D.

The full research on the Plantation Place fort has been published in An Early Roman Fort and Urban Development on Londinium’s Eastern Hill, now for sale in the museum shop and available for pre-order on Amazon.

Rome subway build finds Praetorian guard barracks

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Construction of Rome’s third subway line, Metro Line C, has made a sensational discovery: the remains of a 2nd century Praetorian Guard barracks. Thirty feet under Via Ipponio between the Baths of Caracalla and the Basilica of St. John in Lateran in the historic center of Rome, the barracks cover an astonishing 1,753 square meters (18,870 square feet) of surface area (ed note: the AP story says it’s 900 sq meters, but all of the Italian press reports the larger figure so I’m going with their data), and that’s just what’s been exposed thus far. They were built during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), only to be demolished just over a century later during construction of the Aurelian Walls (271-275 A.D.). The demolition was thankfully half-assed, leaving impressive ruins — the walls are up to five feet high — which were then buried.

There are 39 rooms, each four by four meters (13 x 13 feet), that open onto a central hallway. Some of the rooms, likely the officers’ quarters, are richly decorated with mosaic floors and frescoed walls. The bricks in the walls bear the stamp of the imperial kilns from 123 and 136 A.D., which is how the structure was dated. There’s also a mass grave on the site. So far 13 skeletons have been excavated from it and a few artifacts including a bronze coin and a bronze bracelet.

A number of military remains have been discovered in the neighborhood. Under St. John in Lateran is the Castra Nova Equitum Singularium (built under Septimius Severus, ca. 200 A.D.), a couple of blocks northeast under Via Tasso is the Castra Priora Equitum Singularium (Trajan, ca. 100 A.D.), and west of that near the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo is the Castra Peregrina (Augustus, 1st century A.D.).

Work on Metro Line C began in 2007 and has been beset by funding problems, corruption scandals and wonderful but expensive and time-consuming archaeological discoveries. While the subway tunnels themselves have been dug 80 feet below the surface to avoid hitting constant ancient roadblocks, the new stations can’t avoid bumping into thousand of years of history. The barracks site was discovered during construction of the Amba Aradam station and the city authorities tried to keep the news under wraps to avoid having to announce work on the line was suspended yet again.

The newspaper Il Tempo broke the news of the find last Wednesday, publishing a story complete with quotations from a letter about the find written by Francesco Prosperetti, Special Superintendent for the Archaeological Area of Rome. In the letter Prosperetti describes the discovery as exceptional and in such a good state of conservation that it would not be possible to pursue the idea of dismantling it, finishing construction and then rebuilding the structure in its original context. The barracks complex is so large it occupies the entire southern half of the station and extends beyond it. The northern half of the station is also replete with archaeological remains that haven’t been explored so it’s not known at the moment what they are or the impact they’ll have. As for how so large and complete an ancient structure could have been missed by preventative archaeology done on the site before construction began, Prosperetti notes that archaeologists took core samples which pointed to ancient boundaries under a massive modern structure, but they were buried so deep underground it wasn’t possible to explore them in the preliminary stages.

The subway company now has to figure out how to proceed, and however they go about this, it’s likely going to cost time and money. Metro Line C is already the most expensive subway construction project in history. In a press conference Monday, Prosperetti gave assurances that both the great archaeological importance of the find and the Metro budget and deadlines would be respected. The plan is to integrate the ruins into the station, creating the first fully fledged “archaeological station” in Rome, all without extra expense or delays. If that sounds less than entirely believable to you, that’s because it is.

Egyptian coffin holds youngest known mummified fetus

Friday, May 13th, 2016

A tiny ancient Egyptian coffin previously believed to hold mummified organs has been found to contain the youngest known example of a mummified fetus. Mummified fetuses are rare in the archaeological record of ancient Egypt. Two mummified fetuses in coffins were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, but they were at about 25 weeks and 37 weeks gestation. This one is only 16 to 18 weeks gestation.

The coffin was excavated in Giza in 1907 by William Matthew Flinders Petrie’s British School of Archaeology. When the 1906-1907 dig season ended, Petrie distributed the finds to more than 20 institutions in Britain and the United States. The miniature coffin went to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The cedar wood coffin is just 44 centimeters (17 inches) long. It’s a miniature version of a Late Period Egyptian coffin probably dating to between 664 and 525 B.C. The wood has deteriorated over the years, but even through the networks of deep cracks on the exterior and interior of the coffin, the quality of the carving shines. This was an expensive piece.

Inside the coffin is a bundle wrapped in linen bandages and coated in black resin that was poured over it before the lid was put in place. Because the package is so small, curators thought it contained internal organs that were removed during the mummification process. In preparation for the museum’s bicentennial exhibition Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt, curators wanted to find out what exactly was in that bundle. X-rays were inconclusive but there were indications that small skeletal material might be present.

Curators turned to micro CT, scanning the bundle at Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology. Fitzwilliam experts collaborated with radiologist Dr. Tom Turmezei and pediatric radiologist Dr. Owen Arthurs to examine the cross-sectional images produced by the micro CT scans. They concluded that the bundle contained the remains of a very young fetus. The fingers of both hands and toes of both feet are clearly visible, as are the long bones of the legs and arms. The skull and pelvis have collapsed, but the bones that remain allowed researchers to determine the fetus was no more than 18 weeks old. There are no signs in the surviving bones to explain why the fetus was miscarried.

The long bones of the arms are crossed over the chest, which means the tiny fetus was very carefully posed in its tiny coffin. Add to that the careful mummification and elaborate decoration of the coffin, and it’s clear the fetus was of great importance to its bereaved family.

Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation at the Fitzwilliam Museum said, “Using noninvasive modern technology to investigate this extraordinary archaeological find has provided us with striking evidence of how an unborn child might be viewed in ancient Egyptian society. The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception.”

Other ancient societies, the Romans, for example, had no such care for dead babies, nevermind miscarried fetuses.

The miniature cedar coffin is now on display at the Death on the Nile exhibition, alongside some truly exquisite artifacts pertaining to Egyptian beliefs about death. It runs through May 22nd, so the clock is ticking if you want to see the exhibition. I’m including all the wonderful images of artifacts in the show that the Fitzwilliam made available to entice those of you who can make it to Cambridge and give those of us who can’t at least a taste of the marvels on display.



Iron Age chamber used as trash chute by Victorians

Monday, May 9th, 2016

A subterranean chamber recently discovered on Mainland, Orkney, turns out to have been discovered by the Victorians first, and they filled it with rubbish. The entrance to the structure was found by Clive Chaddock on his land near the Harray Manse. A horticulture professor at Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands, Chaddock called his colleagues from UHI’s Archaeology Institute to investigate. Two weekends ago, the Archaeology Institute’s Martin Carruthers and county archaeologist Julie Gibson examined the find.

The structure is an architecturally impressive well or a souterrain, an underground gallery used neither as a tomb nor for religious purposes. Their exact purpose is unknown. They are associated with settlements, so could have been used for food storage or perhaps a place to hide when the going got tough topside. The Orkney Islands have several notable souterrains, among them Castle Bloody, a souterrain mound on the island of Shapinsay with several passageways leading to a central chamber, a multi-chambered one at East Broch in the island of Burray and another chamber near the Harray Manse.

This one has a short entrance gallery with a low ceiling which leads to partially corbelled square chamber. Comparison with similar structures suggests it dates to the Iron Age. The chamber is fully roofed, but in the 19th century it was exposed and used as a trash chute. Its full depth is obscured by a pile of rusted iron kettles, buckets, glass bottles and even imported French mustard jars. Whoever found it didn’t document it, and eventually it was closed back up and forgotten again.

Martin Carruthers spoke to the Archaeology Institute’s excellent blog about the archaeological double-whammy.

The chamber appears to be entirely constructed from coursed masonry with no bed-rock or glacial till apparent as some Iron Age souterrains and wells do. There are no uprights or pillars present inside the chamber, which makes this structure feel like one of the so-called wells more than a classic souterrain or earthhouse. The steep drop-off between the passage and the chamber also encourages the idea that there may well be a steep flight of stairs leading down into the chamber. The chamber might be really quite deep underneath all the Victorian, and perhaps earlier, in-fill.

As you can see from the images there’s so much Victorian material it probably represents quite an academically interesting collection in its own right. We might be tempted to think that later periods are so well-understood and documented that it isn’t worth thinking about this detritus archaeologically, but actually its often the case that the domestic habits of later periods are often overlooked in many mainstream histories and documents. The Victorian rubbish is potentially a neat snap-shot of someone’s (perhaps one of the Manse’s Ministers) domestic waste of that era and may be full of insight about the habits, tastes and practices of a Nineteenth Century Orkney house- with a real social history value. What’s more, it’s also an interesting insight into a recent intervention in an Orcadian souterrain/well that we had no previous knowledge of. So it’s also noteworthy that here we have an example of another prehistoric underground building that was clearly known to locals, for a time, but didn’t make its way on to the official archives, and helps make the point that there are likely to be so many more of these sorts of structures still to be found in Orkney.

The site has been sealed again and will be monitored for the time being. Keep an eye on the Archaeology Orkney blog for future updates (and for its general awesomeness).

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