Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Giant buffalo skull found in Fens quarry

Sunday, January 20th, 2019

Palaeontologist Jamie Jordan has discovered a rare complete skull of an extinct species of giant buffalo in a Cambridgeshire quarry. Jordan has been excavating the quarry for years and discovered hundreds of bones from the steppe bison (bison priscus), including sections of skull, but this is the first complete skull he’s unearthed.

The bison priscus ranged widely over Europe, Asia and North America 150,000 to around 10,000 years ago. An adult male could reach as high as six-and-a-half feet at the withers and weigh 2,000 pounds, which made them popular subjects by early modern human artists. The cave paintings at Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France feature steppe bison. We don’t have to rely on contemporary depictions or reconstructions from skeletal remains, because steppe bison mummies have been recovered in exceptional condition from the permafrost, two in Alaska and one in Siberia. Blue Babe, the first one discovered in Alaska which was an international sensation, is on permanent display at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks.

Jamie and his team first discovered some splintered pieces of bone at the site, which cannot be named due to safety reasons, before they uncovered the entire fossil. The skull is currently in several pieces but Jamie said once the skull has been cleaned and dried it will fit together again perfectly.

He added: “We have got all the pieces of the skull. The skull is wider than my chest and will weigh around 30kg-35kg when it is complete.”

The conservation and reconstruction of the skull is expected to take around two months to complete. The process will be done in public view at Fossils Galore in March, the non-profit private museum and educational center Jordan created to house the millions of fossils he has collected since he found his first one on a family vacation when he was four years old. Once the bison skull is complete, it will go on display at the museum.

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Mummy identified as Ptolemy II’s doctor

Thursday, January 17th, 2019

After more than two years of study, researchers at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain have discovered the identity of a mummy that has been part of the museum collection since the twenties: Nespamedu, a priest and doctor to Pharaoh Ptolemy II or Ptolemy III.

It is not known where the mummy was unearthed. It was donated to the museum in 1925 from the family of Ignacio Bauer. Bauer had acquired it from the Museum of Cairo at an undetermined time. Current research suggests Nespamedu was buried in the ancient necropolis of Saqqara where elite nobles were still being interred in the Ptolemaic era. In order to find out more about the person inside the bandages, the mummy was transported to Madrid’s Quirónsalud University Hospital in 2016 where it was given extensive computed tomography scans.

The remains date to around 300-200 A.D. and the individual was around 50 years old when he died. His body was carefully mummified and coated in a thick layer of resin to preserve it. It was then wrapped in many feet of linen strips, thinner around the head, thicker in the abdomen, lower back and legs to fill in and even out the body. Resins and oils were applied to the first layer of linen, and numerous amulets nestled in key positions before the body was wrapped in a second layer of linen and then a full-body shroud.

Mummification complete, Nespamedu’s body was covered in expensive gilded cartonnage — linen coated in plaster — which has survived in excellent condition. There are five sections of it, a funerary mask, a collar, a breastplate, a single cover for both legs, and feet covers. The first and last of these entirely encase the head and feet. The cartonnage sections are decorated with paint on the surface and reliefs and appliques of religious iconography and inscriptions were embedded in the plaster.

The inscription on the breastplate names the mummy as Nespamedu, meaning “He who belongs to the scepter,” son of Pasenet his father and the lady of the house Tahutnetcher his mother. Nespamedu’s titles are “Server of Imhotep the Great, son of Ptah,” and “Pharaoh’s doctor.” The former title refers to him having been a priest at the temple of Imhotep. The historical Imhotep was chancellor to Pharaoh Djoser and the builder of the step pyramid, but over the centuries he was deified and associated with Thoth, god of architects and scribes. He was still worshiped under the rule of the Ptolemies, only with a twist: the Greeks associated him with Asklepios, god of medicine.

There were at least three temples dedicated to Imhotep/Asklepios in Egypt, one in Memphis, one in Philae and one in Thebes. The temples were sanitariums, containing pools of sacred water in which the sick would be submerged as they awaited a divine cure. The pharaoh’s doctor was at the top of the temple hierarchy. He was in charge of establishing the standards of education and religious practices. So Nespamedu was not just a priest at the sanctuary of Imhotep/Asklepios, he was the high priest and leader thanks to his second exalted title.

While there is no conclusive evidence of a medical specialty, based on the amulets inserted between the linen layers and clearly seen on the CT scans, researchers think Nespamedu may have been an ancient Egyptian version of an ophthalmologist.

[I]t is the charms and plaques stored within his bandages that are the most revealing. Two groups of eight plaques have shown up on different parts of the mummy in which the four sons of the deity Horus are represented. Another two plaques feature the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, while representations of the mummification of the corpse together with the god Anubis were found at the top of Nespamedu’s legs.

There are also two plaques featuring the god Thoth and the Eye of Horus, symbolizing magic, protection and purification together with a solar symbol that stands for cosmic stability. Thoth is the god of ophthalmologists, as it was he who put Horus’ eye back after he lost it in his battle with Set.

This has led specialists to conclude that Nespamedu chose this god on account of his own profession. “There is nothing casual about the iconography and it is clear that he wanted to register his beliefs and the responsibilities that had elevated him to the upper echelons of society,” states a report published in the last National Archeology Museum’s bulletin. “The fact that he was the pharaoh’s doctor makes us think that part of his life was lived in Alexandria, where Ptolemy had his court.”

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Ancient boundary war in 3 cuneiform pieces

Monday, January 14th, 2019

A prehistoric axe hoard, a Renaissance teratoma, a long-lost giant dirk, and now Dr. Irving Finkel in full self-deprecating-cuneiform-genius charm mode? I think this week’s news is making up nicely for my having been sidelined by injury.

There’s a new display on right now at the British Museum dedicated to the world’s oldest recorded example of a protracted boundary dispute. As with most “oldest recorded examples” of historical events, business transactions and shopping lists, this was written in cuneiform script more than 4,000 years ago. Three artifacts tell the tale of a border conflict in Mesopotamia, now southern Iraq, featuring the neighboring city states of Lagash and Umma. Both of them claimed a strip called “Edge of the Plain,” and both of them of course claimed the gods were on their side in the conflict.

The earliest artifact to give specifics on this fight is the Lagash Border Pillar, a white stone pillar inscribed by order of King Enmetena of Lagash in 2400 B.C. to mark the boundary line of his territorial claim. When it was installed in the desert, the stone would have reflected the light in brilliant white, catching the eye of any passersby. It is believed to be the earliest written description of a border dispute and is also the first recorded use of the term “no man’s land.”

The pillar has been in the collection of the British Museum for 150 years, but in all that time the inscription has never been fully deciphered. It was dusted off just for the new show and Dr. Irving Finkel, incomparable cuneiform scholar, gamesman and raccounteur, deciphered the text. It is a full account of the border war between Lagash and Umma. The carver used the script to prop of his side and put down the enemy’s by using cuneiform symbol for “god” in the name of Lagash’s protector deity, Ningirsu, while the name of Umma’s god is written in such sloppy script it’s barely legible. That is shade, cuneiform-style.

“You have in one breath the use of writing in a magical way to enhance the power of one deity and then nullify the power of the other. This is unique in cuneiform. It’s the most exciting thing you can imagine,” Finkel tells Pickford at The Financial Times.

Finkel believes the pillar was artificially aged by a scribe to improve Lagash’s historical claim to Gu’edina. It appears the scribe also used an archaic form of cuneiform to make the pillar seem older, which made the modern interpretation effort difficult.

The Ur Plaque, also on display, is slightly older (ca. 2500 B.C.) but it’s not as direct a reference. It shows sacrificial offerings made at border shrines under the keen supervision of the Moon God, the type of rituals Lagash and Umma performed to enlist their deities’ support in boundary conflicts.

The third object in the trifecta is the Umma Mace-Head made for King Gishakidu of Umma, Enmetena’s counterpart and nemesis.

In a bit of serendipity, the curators realised during research for the show that an object they had long assumed was a vase had actually been displayed upside down. They now understand that it is actually the head of a fired-clay mace, or heavy club, made for King Gishakidu of Umma. After comparing the object with a similar one at Yale University, “we realised how daft we’d been”, says Irving Finkel, a co-curator of the show. Now displayed right-side up, the mace head is topped by a painted representation of a net that was used to immobilise enemies for execution.

No Man’s Land is sponsored by the Asahi Shimbun and access to the display is free. It runs through Sunday, February 3rd, but if you’re in London, haul ass to the British Museum for your lunch break because Irving Finkel will be doing a gallery talk introducing the display at 1:15. No need to book a reservation. Just drop in and one of the world’s foremost experts in cuneiform will give you a little tour of a pillar, plaque and non-vase, no big deal.

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Giant Bronze Age dirk emerges from private penumbra

Sunday, January 13th, 2019

One of my all-time favorite finds is the ceremonial dirk 27 inches long discovered in a field in East Rudham, Norfolk, and used as a doorstop for 13 years until it was identified as an incredible rare Bronze Age artifact and bought by the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery in 2014. Seeing that dirk in person is high on my bucket list of nerd pilgrimages.

Called the Plougrescant-Ommerschans type after the locations where the first two were found, only five other examples of Middle Bronze Age oversize ceremonial dirks are known in the world. They have an abstract geometric decoration, dull edges and tips and no handles, which is how we know they were meant for ceremonial purposes. All of them are so similar in design and size they are believed to have been produced in the same workshop, very possibly by the same hand. When I was writing the story about the Norwich Castle Museum’s acquisition of the Rudham Dirk, I was able to include photographs of four of the five known examples, all of which are in museums.

The one exception was the Ommerschans Dirk (1500-1350 B.C.), the co-type find which was discovered in late 19th century in a field between Witharen and Ommerschans in Overijssel, east Netherlands. There were no photographs of it because it was found on the Junne estate, one of the largest private estates in the country, then owned by Eduard Lüps and he didn’t exactly broadcast the find far and wide. The details of the discovery are hazy. All we know is that sometime between 1894 and 1900, the Lüps’ forester found the dirk deposited on a birch platform together with a number of artifacts including a Sicilian bronze razor, two metal chisels, a stone chisel, a stone tablet and a whetstone. The forester nailed them all to a wooden board and that’s how they were kept for years.

The news of the discovery gradually spread and in 1927 Jan Hendrik Holwerda, archaeologist and director of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (the National Museum of Antiquities) in Leiden examined the dirk. Holwerda was deeply impressed by the artifact, which is saying a lot because he was dubious about the very existence of a Bronze Age. He attempted to buy the dirk and the other objects discovered with it, but Lüps’ price was so astronomical the museum couldn’t afford it. Holwerda had to be satisfied with a single picture and a cast of the dagger.

In the 1930s the Lüps family moved to Bavaria and took the dirk with them. To all intents and purposes, it disappeared. It wasn’t loaned or seen in public. In the 1970s, director of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden Louwe Kooijmans, an expert in Netherlands prehistory, tried again to acquire the Ommerschans Dirk to no avail. In 2015, the museum’s prehistory curator Luc Amkreutz tried to get the dirk on loan for a great sword exhibition that would have brought all six of the Plougrescant-Ommerschans type blades together for the first time. The family refused. They were apparently concerned that the dirk would be confiscated by the government once in the Netherlands, on what grounds is unclear as the title was clean. The Netherlands’ Culture Minister Jet Bussemaker even wrote a letter assuring them that there was no danger the artifact would be confiscated, but at the last moment the family decided against the loan. The exhibition went on with the 1927 plaster cast in place of the real deal.

Then, at long last, a ray of light: the Lüps descendants were ready to sell the dirk to the museum. The museum made an offer based on the sale price of the Rudham Dirk (£40,970 in 2014) and the Jutphaas Dirk which they had acquired in 2005. They were never told their offer was too low or given a counter price. Instead the owners just put it up for auction at Christie’s London in July 2017 along with the surviving artifacts discovered with it.

That turned out to be a wise choice from a financial perspective at least, because it shattered the previous prices and blew through even Christie’s pre-sale estimate of £80,000-120,000 to sell for £485,000 ($623,000). It was the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden who made the winning bid, 90 years after it first tried to secure the dirk for the nation. It now owns two of the six, and the two that are in the best condition to boot.

The museum’s glorious long-fought win makes a tiny one possible for your faithful blogger. For four years plus it has niggled at me that I almost, ALMOST, got pictures of all of the Plougrescant-Ommerschans dirks except for one of the two in the name. That blemish on my record for photo acquisition is heretofore healed.

Ommerschans Dirk, Middle Bronze Age, ca. 1500-1350 B.C. Photo courtesy the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.

The dirk is now on display in a special exhibition at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo. For the Love of Art brings together 80 extraordinary pieces of art and archaeology acquired by forty Dutch museums in the last ten years. The Ommerschans Dirk is the oldest object of the 80.

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Europe’s largest hoard of Copper Ages axes found in Bulgaria

Friday, January 11th, 2019

A hoard of Copper Age axes and ax hammers discovered in Bulgaria is the largest ever found in Europe. The heavy copper tools were found accidentally during agricultural work near the village of Polkovnik Taslakovo in the northeastern region of Silistra in 2013. The 22 pieces — 18 flat axes and four axe hammers — were found together in one spot about three feet below the surface. The farmer, Erdoan Ismet Shaban, alerted the authorities and experts from the Ruse Regional Museum of History were dispatched to examine the hoard.

The tools are made of an alloy with a high copper content for a total weight of 25.6 pounds. They date to the late Chalcolithic, 4500-4200 B.C., a time when the site was on the periphery of the highly populated and metallurgically active settlements on the coast of the Black Sea. It’s likely that the tools in the hoard were cast in one of those places, in fact, and then traded and distributed west to central Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkan Peninsula. There are four settlement mounds near the find site, so it’s possible the hoard was connected to one of them, but there has been no archaeological field survey of the area to help determine whether there is a Chalcolithic layer that can be associated with the find.

“The discovered find is the largest [of its kind] in Europe so far. It is a testimony to the [development and sophistication] of the earliest metallurgy in human history,” the Ruse Regional Museum of History says.

“The axes bear hardly any traces that they were used which leads to the supposition that they were not meant for practical purposes but were an indicator of prestige, or were [were used as] means of exchange,” the Museum adds.

The axes and axe hammers are now on display at the Regional Museum of History in Silistra where they will be conserved and stored in proper conditions.

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Roman cemetery with unusual decapitations found

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered a Roman cemetery with an unusual number of decapitation burials in Suffolk. The skeletal remains of 52 individuals, men, women and children, were unearthed. About 40 percent of the burials found — including two ten-year-old children — had been decapitated and their heads deliberately placed between their feet or at their sides.

The team was excavating the site of a new housing development in Great Whelnetham, near Bury St Edmunds, known to have been a Roman settlement of the 3rd century A.D. The area has fine, sandy soil, a very poor preservation medium for organic remains, so they expected to find maybe the shadows of burials, the subtle impressions left in the ground after all of the bodies had disintegrated centuries ago. When the first exploratory trench revealed two largely intact skeletons, archaeologists were intrigued and widened the excavation to cover two large squares.

The wide trenches were necessary because of that sandy soil. Usually cemetery finds can be excavated by focusing on the grave cuts which mark the spot of a burial better than any X can mark the spot of a fabulous pirate treasure. The grave cuts disappeared completely in this soil, so in order to excavate the entire cemetery, they had to dig up a lot of ground. The work paid off and dozens more skeletons in good condition were unearthed.

It’s extremely rare to find so many decapitation and otherwise non-standard burials in a Roman cemetery in Britain. Traditionally, the Romans buried their dead on their back, bodies intact and significant religious and personal items interred with them. Most Roman cemeteries contain a few unusual or deviant burials, often the result of executions or death from an illness that was considered dangerous to the living.

According to archaeologist Andy Peachey, 60% of the graves at the site, which dates to the 4th century, could be classified as ‘deviant’ – placed in a manner which does not conform to the most common Roman burial rite. […]

Mr Peachey, from excavation company Archaeological Solutions, said the remains did not indicate executions.

“This appears to be a careful funeral rite that may be associated with a particular group within the local population, possibly associated with a belief system (cult) or a practice that came with a group moved into the area,” he said.

“The incisions through the neck were post-mortem and were neatly placed just behind the jaw – an execution would cut lower through the neck and with violent force, and this is not present anywhere.”

Less than a handful of burial grounds with such a high proportion of deviant burials have been discovered in Britain. The two other Roman cemeteries found in Great Whelnetham have the normal small proportion of deviant burials. Given that 60% of the burials in this cemetery deviate from the norm, the deviant largely was the norm for this community.

Peachey speculates that it could have been a local cult, absorbed like so many were by the Romans, that venerated the head as the locus of the soul, perhaps, or reserved it special treatment for some other reason. The other possibility, that these were a sub-group of the population who moved to Britain and brought their funerary traditions with them, may be confirmed or denied by staple isotope analysis of their teeth. It can pinpoint where people lived as children.

If it does turn out that they came from some far-flung area of the Empire, that opens up the possibility that they were slaves, an imported agricultural labour force. Osteological analysis has found that they were, as a group, healthy, well-fed and well-doctored. A few children died young, but there were more adults in what we would consider middle age and older. They were well-built with muscular arms and upper body and had no signs of malnutrition. They even had bad teeth indicating they had easy access to sugars and carbohydrates, the downfall of dental hygiene since time immemorial, but all the abscesses, lesions and areas of lost/extracted teeth were well-healed.

The results of the analyses will take at least six months. The remains have been moved to a museum laboratory for further study. When the report is complete, it will be published and all remains and artifacts deposited in the Suffolk County Council archaeological archive.

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Buff woman is earliest-known burial in lower Central America

Monday, January 7th, 2019

The remains of a woman discovered at the Angi shell-matrix site near Monkey Point on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua are the oldest-known human remains in lower Central America.

The site was first excavated in the 1970s, but archaeological exploration of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast in general was limited. That has begun to change in the past 10 years as a concerted effort has been made to survey and thoroughly document ancient sites. The Angi shell-matrix site was revisited in 2013 as part of this project with the aim of assessing its condition for conservation purposes. The excavation made it possible to fully document the statrigaphy of the midden and collect deposit samples, including ones that could be radiocarbon dated. The layers were made of shell (bivalve and snail), charcoal and sediment with a few fragments of ceramics found in the upper layers.

Seven and a half feet under the surface, archaeologists unearthed (unshelled?) the skeletal remains one adult buried in a shallow oval pit on its back with legs bent over the torso and arms at the sides of the body near the feet and pelvis. It was undisturbed, found in the position in which it was buried.

The body was placed over a layer of small fragments of basalt inside the pit. Underneath the basalt rocks was a base layer of charcoal-rich sediment. That was fortuitous material because not enough of the collagen in the bones had survived to make direct radiocarbon dating possible. Instead archaeologists were able to test samples of the sediment and thereby date the burial to 3900 B.C. That makes it the earliest archaeological feature ever recorded on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua as well as the oldest human remains in the area.

With permission of the local indigenous communities, archaeologists removed the skeletal remains to the Historical Cultural Museum of the Caribbean Coast (BICU–CIDCA). Osteological analysis determined the individual was a woman between 25 and 40 years old at time of death. She was 4’11” and powerfully built.

Despite the woman’s small stature, she had “strongly developed musculature of the forearm — possibly from rowing or similar activities,” [study author Mirjana] Roksandic said. Even today, local people are adept rowers.

“While we were in the village of Bankukuk Taik, [study co-researcher] Harly Duncan introduced us to a Rama elder who rowed that very day for 4 hours to visit family,” Roksandic said. “She was 82 years old. Kids as young as 9 rowed around Rama islands in a dugout.”

Moreover, like other people who eat a fair amount of shellfish, the woman had extensive wear on her teeth, Roksandic said.

Given that few ancient human remains are found in tropical places, little is known about the indigenous cultures of lower Central America, Roksandic said. While ancient people who build shell mounds are often fishers, gatherers and horticulturalists, “without further study of the site, it will not be possible to ascertain who they were and why the burial was placed there and what is the significance of this particular individual,” Roksandic said.

There’s a tight deadline on additional study of the site. Canal construction and other development will have a profound impact on the Monkey Point’s archaeological sites.

The study, published in the journal Antiquity can be read in its entirety online here.

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Chinese bronzeware designs found on Stone Age reliefs

Friday, January 4th, 2019

Reliefs carved on stone walls at the Neolithic site of Shimao in Shaanxi, northern China, are strikingly similar to the characteristic motifs found on bronzeware made hundreds, even thousands of years later during the Chinese Bronze Age.

Shimao was built in around 2000 B.C., two massive stone walls encircling it at a time when most towns in the region only had earthen ramparts for defense. The walls average eight feet in thickness over perimeters of 2.6 miles for the inner wall and 3.5 miles for the outer. There are towers and gates dotted along their length. There is even precious jade packed into the walls, likely intended as protective talismans.

The site was discovered in 1976 but there was no thorough professional archaeological exploration of Shimao until 2011. Since then, excavations have unearthed more than 100 murals of geometric patterns on the inner wall, copious jade, the remains of animal sacrifices and the skulls of 80 women were found near the city gates, thought to have been ritual sacrificed before construction of the walls began.

About 30 carved reliefs were found in the most recently excavation. The majority feature geometric designs like the painted murals on the inner wall, but there are some unexpected and notable anthropomorphic creatures with monstrous faces, what look like tusks and arms posed like an animals’ forelegs. These beastly creatures are highly reminiscent of the designs on the bronze vessels of the Shang (1600 B.C.- 1046 B.C.) and Zhou (1046 B.C.- 256 B.C.) dynasties

“The beast-face patterns found in Shimao might have had a significant influence on the motifs of China’s Bronze Age,” Sun Zhouyong, president of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, said….

Researchers were working to find out whether there might have been a link between the people who carved the ancient stones and the craftsmen of the Zhou and Shang dynasties, the report said.

“The discoveries at Shimao are constantly challenging our understanding of early civilisations in China,” Sun said.

“We now have more reasons and confidence to infer that Shimao is a landmark discovery for China and east Asia.”

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Missing Ancient Greek decree found in wall

Friday, December 28th, 2018

More than a century after it was lost, a 3rd century B.C. stele has been rediscovered embedded in the outer wall of a home on the island of Amorgos in the Cyclades. The Nikouria decree went missing in 1908 and many researchers have tried and failed to find it ever since. An archaeology student, Stelios Perakis, and archaeologist N. N. Fischer found the piece with the help of local residents.

French archaeologist Théophile Homolle, then director of the French School at Athens, discovered the stele in 1893 in the Panagia Church on the islet of Nikouria in northeastern Amorgos. The inscription records a response to Ptolemy II Philadelphus’ request that delegates be sent to Samos to discuss the Island League’s participation in the games and religious rites in honor of his father Ptolemy I Soter. Ptolemy, friend and general to Alexander the Great and ruler of Egypt after his death in 323 B.C., had “liberated” (really it was more of a take-over) some of the city-states of the Cyclades, restoring their ancient constitutions and repealing their taxes.

His son picked up where the father left off, expanding the Ptolemaic dominance in the Cyclades. The Island League was a political union of the Cycladic islands created by the Ptolemies to cement their influence. In the stele, the League agrees to send a mission to the sacred games held for Ptolemy in Alexandria. The Ptolemy games were also held every four years and the inscription explicitly addresses the obvious rival by stipulated that the members of the League hold the Ptolemaieia in equal importance to the Olympic games. The decree would be proclaimed in all the cities of the League. Ptolemy II would be gifted a gold crown at the cost of 1,000 staters. The stele then details how the island cities would pay for all this and names the three delegates they’d send to Samos. (The name of the third is lost.)

There’s been a lot of debate among scholars about the dating of the Nikouria decree. The first date proffered in 1895 was ca. 285-3 based on a reference to Ptolemy II’s accession to the throne, but Ptolemy didn’t conquer Samos until after his victory in the battle of Kouroupedion in 281 B.C . Later scholars shifted the range to the 260s B.C., likely 262 when the Ptolemaieia was held.

The specific stele is considered important since it provides evidence concerning the balance of power during the first half of the 3rd century BC and the transition of control from the Macedonians to the Ptolemies.

Belying its significance, the stele was not kept in a secure location after is discovery. It was stashed in a stable near the find site for years. That stable was its last known address when all records of its ceased in 1908. It was found again in the wall at a newly renovated home which had once belonged to Stamatis Gripsos, a shepherd from Nikouria. Perhaps he had access to the barnus delicti. The Nikouria decree will now be removed from the wall and moved to the Amorgos archaeological collection.

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Remains of third horse found at Pompeii villa

Wednesday, December 26th, 2018

The skeleton of a horse who died wearing an elaborate harness and saddle have been unearthed at an elite villa on the outskirts of Pompeii. This is the third set of horse remains discovered at the estate north of the city walls, the first of which was the first confirmed horse ever found at Pompeii.

Excavations began last March as an emergency response to looting activity. Tunnels dug underneath the villa by thieves were endangering the archaeological material. The dig brought to light a series of service areas of the grand suburban villa with artifacts preserved in exceptional condition. Amphorae, cooking utensils, even parts of a wooden bed were recovered, and a plaster cast was made of the entire bed.

One of the service areas that could be identified is the stable. Archaeologists unearthed the first horse lying on its side and were able to make a plaster cast from the cavity the horse’s body had left in the hardened volcanic rock. They then unearthed the legs of a second horse. This year the team excavated the rest of the stable, revealing the rest of the remains of the second horse and the skeleton of a third complete with its harness.

The former was found lying on its right side, skull on top of the left front leg. It was next to charred wood pieces from a manger (also cast in plaster). The position suggests that the poor horse was tied to it and could not get away when Vesuvius’ pyroclastic fury hit the stable. The third horse was found on its left side, an iron bit clenched between its teeth. The looting tunnels exposed the cavity and cementified it made it impossible to make a plaster cast of it.

The excavation of the third horse revealed five bronze objects: four wood pieces of half-moon shape coated in bronze found on the ribs, one bronze piece made of three hooks riveted to a ring connected to a disc. It was found under the belly near the front legs. The shapes and design of these parts suggest they were part of a saddle that is described in ancient sources. It was a wooden structure with four horns, two in the front, two in the rear, covered with bronze plates. This firm saddle gave the rider stability in an era before stirrups.

Saddles of this kind were used from the early imperial era particularly by members of the military. The ring junction, four for each harness, were used to connect leather straps to the saddle horns. This was rich, expensive tack that would have belonged to someone of very high rank. The artifacts found strongly indicate that this horse belonged to a Roman military officer and had been saddled likely in the hope of escaping the eruption. Vesuvius got to human and equines before they had a chance.

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