Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

1,500-year-old tomb in Mongolia saved from looters

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Archaeologists in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region have unearthed a lacquer coffin from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 to 534 A.D.), snatching it out from under the nose of looters. The looters were caught digging a tunnel 10 meters (33 feet) long towards the tomb entrance, which is how archaeologists knew where to dig.

Tombs of aristocrats from the Northern Wei Dynasty have been found before in the Xilin Gol Grassland, a prairie region in Inner Mongolia that has been home to nomadic tribes since the Bronze Age Shang Dynasty in the 16th century B.C. Most recently, two tombs have been unearthed in the past two years in locations adjacent to the one that was just discovered. The potential for treasure in these tombs has attracted thieves who are so bold they often act as parasites on official archaeological projects, digging the same site at night that the professionals are excavating during the day. It’s a lucky break that they were caught in this instance before they destroyed the archaeological context in their search for salable goods.

On March 7th, the large black-lacquered pinewood coffin was removed from the tomb along with archaeological context material like soil and wood and brought to a laboratory at the Xilin Gol League Museum in Xilin Hot, Inner Mongolia. The next day, the coffin was gingerly opened to reveal the mortal remains of an aristocratic woman in excellent condition. She was wrapped in a silk shroud and wearing fur boots. Her thick black hair was adorned with a metal headband. She was buried with goods including a bow, a dagger and various pottery vessels.

Archaeologists have not found any indication of the identity of the deceased, but they hope that analysis will reveal much about her life and death. Samples of her hair will be tested for information about her diet, age and health. The well-preserved contents of the coffin and tomb will hopefully provide experts with new insight into the funerary customs of ancient Xianbei nomadic tribes who inhabited the area. There were many tribes under the Xianbei umbrella. Researchers hope to narrow down which clan the aristocratic woman belonged to.

One of the Tuoba tribe, Tuoba Liwei, was posthumously considered the first emperor of the Northern Wei Dynasty. Although China was briefly unified under the Northern Wei in 439 A.D., when the dynasty came to power it employed customs and practices that were foreign to the ethnic Chinese majority, like requiring would-be empresses not to be of high birth, but to be able to forge gold statues during a ceremony, and forcing the mothers of crown princes to commit suicide and instead giving princes’ wet nurses dowager empress status. As the dynasty expanded and fused with neighboring ethnic groups, these distinct practices fell out of favor.

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Basketball court builders find Maya Ball Game court

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

During construction of a basketball court on the campus of the West Technological University (UTP) in Maxcanú, in the Mexican state of Yucatan, workers discovered that the Maya had beat them to it by two thousand years. It was 2012 and the university had selected a grassy, flat area at the bottom of a hill to build a new basketball court. Almost as soon as work began, earthmovers encountered an unmovable object. Not being an irresistible force, the machines stopped while the people investigated. They found the obstacle was a pink stone wall that looked old so they called in the experts.

Archaeologists from the state branch of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) examined the find and confirmed it was indeed old. INAH archaeologist Eunice Uc told university president Rossana Alpizar Rodríguez: “The Maya are way ahead of you. You can’t build your basketball court because a pre-Hispanic one already exists here: it’s a Ball Game court.” Further excavations revealed two parallel rectangular structures made from the pink stone. They’re oriented north-south and are fairly narrow at, 19 meters (62 feet) long and seven meters (23 feet) wide. Between them is a flat field .

The structures are made out of stones carved in the Puuc style, veneer stones, sometimes highly decorated, over a concrete core. The interior sides that face each other start from a plaster layer over which the wall is built first in three steps and then with a slope leading up to a flat floor. The exteriors have vertical walls. The field was covered with a four-inch thick layer of stucco. The perimeter of the court is demarcated by a boundary of coarse stones of regular size (up to 60 centimeters or about 24 inches wide). About 15 meters (50 feet) south from the court, nearer the base of the hill, is a circular altar. The style of architecture identifies the court as having been built in the Early Classic period, 250 B.C. to 600 A.D.

The location at the foot of the hill was a deliberate choice. The soil there is a rich red earth called Kankab, deposited as runoff from mountain streams. It’s highly fertile and was prize land for Maya farmers. Some researchers believe the Ball Game was associated with agriculture and fertility rituals, hence the placement. A cave at the top of the hill represented the birthplace of the gods and the Ball Game linked the deities on the mountain to the agricultural land during ceremonies.

One of the activities during the Ball Games is narrated in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala: “It says that the mythical twins Hunahpu and Ixbalanque faced, in ball player’s getup, the lords of the underworld who are finally defeated, thus conquering death and giving way to life; this myth continues with the resurrection of the twins father who transforms into the corn god; this suggests there is a huge link between this deity and the ritual game that took place in these sacred spaces.”

More than 26 Mayan ball game courts have been discovered in Yucatan, but this is the first one found in Maxcanú, a town about 40 miles south of the state capital of Mérida. The university is thrilled with the discovery, even though it crushed their hoop dreams. In exchange for a few games, students will get to work on conservation issues and on a archaeological tourism plan that will bring new visitors to Maxcanú. The site is still being excavated and conserved by INAH in conjunction with school.

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Rare Roman intaglio bracelet to go on display

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014


On July 26th, 2012, a metal detectorist found a Roman bracelet near Dalton, Cumbria, northwestern England. It was broken in two pieces: a twisted tube made out of spiralled silver wire and a hinged round bezel with a red gemstone intaglio of Jupiter. Dating to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., this bracelet is a very rare artifact, especially so for the Furness area because no Roman structures have ever been found there. Plenty of Roman coins have been, but not high-end jewelry like this piece. The artifact thus testifies to the wide range of Roman trade reaching the ends of the empire, or it may point to a settlement that hasn’t been unearthed yet.

The finder reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme liaison and the subsequent coroner’s inquest declare it official treasure trove. Since then, the bracelet has been at the British Museum where experts were studying it and assessing its market value so a local museum, in this case the Dock Museum in Furness, could acquire it. The price was modest compared to some of the major treasure finds — just £1,800 ($3,000) — but small local museums don’t have acquisition budgets so they had to raise the funds.

Thanks to a donation from the Furness Maritime Trust, the Dock Museum is now the proud owner of this beautiful and rare piece of jewelry. It will go on display on March 14th in the museum’s new archaeology gallery. There will be associated workshops at the end of the month that schools have been invited to, and on Saturday, April 12th, a free Roman-themed family fun day.

It’s only fair that such a handsome piece of jewelry would inspire all kinds of new exhibitions and events at the museum. I think the striking spiral wire design with filigree terminals is reminiscent of a torc while the intaglio is a Greco-Roman classic. That’s not to say this was a hybrid of British and Roman workmanship. The thick spiral-twisted wire band with elaborate terminals and an engraved gemstone set in hinged bezel center is a design that has been found far, far away from Britannia. A similar silver hinged bracelet was found in Slovenia. Gold examples have been found in Syria and Egypt. This was an import, and an expensive one at that.

From the curator’s report for the treasure inquest:

The distorted elliptical hoop comprises a fine and evenly-twisted, tightly-spiralled tube made from circular-sectioned silver wire. Quite heavy wear is visible on both sides of the hoop. What appears to be the central core, around which the wire was spiralled, is visible under magnification in those places where distortion has slightly ‘opened’ the twisted strands, but its composition is uncertain. Each terminal is enclosed in a tubular collar which is decorated with an applied central meander filigree wire flanked by a double-ring edge-moulding. [...]

The large circular bezel, a hollow box construction of silver sheet, has a plain back and sides. Its ornate upper face comprises an outer basal zone of herringbone pattern, formed from three concentric circles of twisted wire, and a central raised open dome with ribbed side and stepped, apparently rubbed-over, setting. The oval gem, seemingly of translucent orange-red colour, has dropped out of position to the base of the box-setting, presumably as a result of the deterioration and loss of an original organic packing. Engraved into its lightly convex surface is the image of a seated Jupiter, with wreath and full-length drapery, holding a sceptre in his left hand. In his extended right hand he holds a patera above a stylised flaming altar.

Whoever owned this bracelet had to be very wealthy. Dock Museum curator Sabine Skae speculates that it belonged to a wealthy Furness woman, native rather than Roman, who could afford the best and wanted to show it off.

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First human remains from ancient Marcavalle culture found in Cuzco

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Archaeologists from the Decentralized Department of Culture of Cuzco, Peru, have unearthed the first human remains ever discovered from the pre-Incan Marcavalle culture which flourished in the area around 1000 B.C., the first known human settlement in the Cuzco Valley. Digging on the grounds of the Juvenile Rehabilitation Center of Marcavalle 20 minutes south of downtown Cuzco by agreement with the Superior Court of Justice, excavators found three burial areas containing the skeletal remains of five people. Two adults were buried together in one grave along an east-west axis. Adjacent to them was the grave of an infant. Nearby two adolescents were buried with their lower legs bent and placed side by side.

Interred along with the human remains were artifacts characteristic of Marcavalle culture. The people were buried wearing bead necklaces around their necks and arms. Excavators also found decorative pottery in animal and human shapes. Iridescent paint was used on some of the pottery, a material typical of Marcavalle ceramic. There were a number of projectile points made out of stone and obsidian, charms and tools — mortars, chisels, awls, drills — made of stone and bone. Unworked bones of camelids, deer and guinea pigs butchered for food were unearthed in the funerary context as well.

Researchers found another first in another trench: a semicircular wall. The sandstone and clay mortar wall is the first architectural evidence ever discovered from the Marcavalle culture. It’s not clear what structure the wall was a part of, but archaeologists found ashes which may have been left behind from religious or cultural activity of some kind.

This is a find of major importance because it geometrically expands our understanding of Marcavalle culture. Very little is known about it. They were identified from artifacts — potsherds, stone, mainly obsidian, projectile points, worked bone and bones from stock animals — first found in 1953 in the town of Marcavalle, two and a half miles southeast of Cuzco. Geometric decoration on the pottery painted with a red slip over a painted cream-color background was the most common style found on Marcavalle potsherds, a style also found in the most recent excavation. From the little we do know, the Marcavalle peoples were primarily farmers who lived in relatively densely populated villages in the Cuzco Valley.

Ricardo Ruiz Caro, head of the Decentralized Department of Culture of Cuzco, emphasizes the significance of the find: “These are the first funerary contexts found intact in 50 years of studies and research on the Formative period that will allow us to reinterpret the process of cultural evolution in the Cuzco Valley.”

Excavations in the Juvenile Center will continue through this years. Researchers have to secure more than $350,000 to fund further archaeological explorations that may illuminate this obscure period in ancient Peruvian history. Meanwhile, all the artifacts are being conserved and recorded for later analysis from experts in a variety of relevant specialties.

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Egyptian in Roman army writes mournful letter home

Friday, March 7th, 2014

A letter written on papyrus 1800 years ago by an Egyptian soldier serving in the Roman army has just been fully deciphered by Rice University doctoral candidate Grant Adamson.

The papyrus is one of more than 30,000 discovered in the Egyptian city of Tebtunis 90 miles southwest of Cairo during an 1899-1900 archaeological expedition led by British papyrologists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt. They were the first to excavate Tebtunis and they hit papyrus paydirt almost immediately. The dig began December 3rd, 1899, and within a month they had already unearthed hundreds of papyri in the ancient town and in the main temple complex. In January of 1900, they found another two rich papyrology veins in the city necropolis. One was a group of more than fifty human mummies encased in cartonnage, a papier-mâché-like material that used recycled papyri. The other was a group of more than 1,000 mummified crocodiles, 31 of which were wrapped in recycled papyrus.

We know this because they unwrapped the mummies shortly after excavation just to get to the papyri, a conservation nightmare to modern sensibilities. For comparison, here are two mummified crocodiles unearthed by Grenfell and Hunt at Tebtunis. The first is still wrapped in its original reed, textile and painted cartonnage face mask. The second was unwrapped on site.


The papyri found in the temple complex were the most recent, written when Egypt was under Roman rule in the first three centuries of the first millennium. Almost all of them were written in Greek with a few written in Demotic. The temple was dedicated to the crocodile god Soknebtunis (a local the name for the god that translates to “Sobek, Lord of Tebtunis”) and the priests lived in houses in the temple complex. Many papyri were discovered in those priestly homes, a vast collection of documents ranging from tax receipts to apprenticeship contracts, petitions to minutes of priest meetings, loans to private correspondence.

Grenfell and Hunt published the Soknebtunis papyri in Volume II of their three-volume work The Tebtunis Papyri, but many of the translations were incomplete. For document 583, only a short summary was published. That letter is now in the papyrus collection of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, which is where Grant Adamson studied in seeking to finish the job Grenfell and Hunt started more than a century ago. He had the benefit of new technology to help him make sense of the faded and fragmented writing: infrared imaging which makes illegible text visible.

The letter was written by one Aurelius Polion, soldier of the legio II Adiutrix stationed in Pannonia Inferior, around present-day Hungary, in the third century A.D. and is forlorn in tone.

Addressed to his mother (a bread seller), sister and brother, part of it reads: “I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind,” it reads.

“I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you …” (Part of the letter hasn’t survived.)

Polion says he has written six letters to his family without response, suggesting some sort of family tensions.

“While away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger,” he writes. “I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother …”

We don’t know if that stinging rebuke reached its intended recipients, but it seems likely since we know it found its way to Egypt and to the temple of Soknebtunis. It seems Polion entrusted the letter to a former Roman soldier rather than the Roman military postal system. The verso of the letter gives hand delivery instructions to someone whose name may have been (the fragmentary papyrus makes it unclear) Acutius Leon.

For more information about the Tebtunis papyri, including translations of featured pieces and a searchable database of the papyrus collection, see the website of The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri.

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Whole egg votive found under Sardis floor

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the ruins of Sardis, onetime capital of Lydia, home of King Croesus whose control of gold deposits in the area made his name synonymous with enormous wealth, in western Turkey have unearthed two votive deposits buried under the floor of a Roman-era home. Both votives have the same ingredient list: a coin, a group of pointed metal nail or needle-like objects and an egg, all placed inside pottery vessels which were covered and buried. One was a jug found broken into pieces, its fragile egg smashed. The other was a bowl topped with an inverted bowl to act as lid and its egg was found intact except for a hole that was deliberately poked in its shell in antiquity probably to remove the contents so the egg wouldn’t rot and make the newly renovated home it was supposed to bless smell like sulfur.

The votive pottery dates to between 54 and 68 A.D. when Sardis was part of the Roman province of Asia. A few decades before then in 17 A.D. Sardis had been nearly leveled by a massive earthquake. Pliny the Elder called it “the greatest earthquake which has occurred in our memory.” Tacitus described the extent of the devastation in Annals II: 47:

In the same year, twelve important cities of Asia collapsed in an earthquake, the time being night, so that the havoc was the less foreseen and the more devastating. Even the usual resource in these catastrophes, a rush to open ground, was unavailing, as the fugitives were swallowed up in yawning chasms. Accounts are given of huge mountains sinking, of former plains seen heaved aloft, of fires flashing out amid the ruin. As the disaster fell heaviest on the Sardians, it brought them the largest measure of sympathy, the Caesar promising ten million sesterces, and remitting for five years their payments to the national and imperial exchequers.

So Sardis was rebuilt, thanks to a significant capital investment and tax breaks from the emperor Tiberius. The scars from the earthquake never did fade, however, and the city never regained its former splendor. The house in which the votives were found was built over the ruins of a previous structure that archaeologists believe was destroyed in the earthquake of 17 A.D.. It’s possible that the homeowners had that destruction in mind when they buried the votives under their new floor to protect it from any future such ravages.

They could also have been a simple purification ritual. Burying votives in a wall or under a floor was a relatively common practice in antiquity. The Lustratio ceremony, a Greco-Roman purification ritual, was used to bless and purify buildings after new construction or renovation. Eggs were used in the Lustratio ceremony. An egg was placed on the fire and if it cracked, it was a bad portent warning the owner of danger to the property. The Sardis home shows signs of having been renovated several times.

The coin found in the bowl along with the egg and pointy metal things may also provide a clue to the ritual purpose of the votives.

“The coin has a portrait of Nero on the front. The original reverse was hammered flat, and the image of a lion engraved in its place, which is very odd.” Expert numismatists have never seen anything like it. “The image of the lion is important because it is emblematic of the Lydian kings and of their native mother goddess Cybele,” [University of Wisconsin-Madison art history professor Nicholas] Cahill says.

There are references in the ancient sources connected Cybele and eggs. In Juvenal’s Satire V, the priests of Cybele (called “Galli” which also means roosters) are presented as effective against “black hobgoblins, and dangers from a broken egg.” That danger was sorcery, mainly. Pierced or broken eggs were an indication that they had been used in spell-casting.

Cybele isn’t the only deity with a possible votive egg connection in Sardis. In 1911, Princeton University archaeologists led by Howard Crosby Butler unearthed the temple of Artemis, long since buried by landslides. They found a number of vessels holding coins, eggs and pointy metal objects, but at the time there was little interest in such quotidian items and excavations were interrupted by World War I. When Butler returned in 1922, he found most of the artifacts had been destroyed or stolen. According to notes from the 1911 excavation, the votive eggs at the temple of Artemis were also deliberately perforated in antiquity.

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Another wall collapses in Pompeii

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Heavy rainfall has claimed new victims among the ruins of Pompeii: two more walls have come down.

Officials said the wall of a tomb about 1.7 metres high and 3.5 metres long collapsed in the necropolis of Porta Nocera in the early hours of Sunday.

That followed a smaller collapse on Saturday of part of an arch supporting the Temple of Venus. [...]

The Temple of Venus is in an area of the site which was already closed to visitors, while access to the necropolis has been closed following the collapse of the wall.

Heavy rains and continued neglect inflicted the coup de grace on a whole gladiator school and took down multiple walls in 2010. There much indignant harumphing about it, but not a lot of necessary maintenance to keep the deterioration at bay. In 2011, the European Union pledged $145 million to the conservation of Pompeii, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the then-Culture Minister, Giancarlo Galan, asserted that Pompeii would be a priority for his tenure.

Two years later, after a damning UNESCO report identified the extensive structural damage, vandalism and unqualified employees plaguing the ancient site, Italy launched the Great Pompeii rescue project, a plan to restore the entire site using the UNESCO report as an action plan and the EU’s $145 million in funding. Great Pompeii also has a goal of increasing visitor numbers by 300,000 a year by 2017, however, which seems counterproductive given the danger posed by crowds.

Pompeii attracted more than 2.3 million visitors in 2010 and on the busiest days it had 20,000. Sheer numbers, along with careless behaviour, are causing considerable damage: “Visitors in groups rub against the decorated walls, all too often with their rucksacks, or lean against them to take the best possible photographs,” says the report.

Meanwhile, a cooperative group of German and Italian institutions has launched the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation project (PSP) which plans to spend €10 million ($13,781,000) over ten years restoring major structures in need of attention and training the experts of tomorrow.

Now that there’s a new government in Rome, there’s also a new Culture Minister. Dario Franceschini was appointed last month by the new prime minister Matteo Renzi. In response to the latest collapse, he has called an emergency meeting of heritage officials on Tuesday. He will hear a report on the collapses and on the progress of the Great Pompeii project. The trick is going to be continuing oversight, since basically every since culture minister has done the same thing every time Pompeii exposed them by falling a little more apart.

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Confirmed: Tetrarchs looted from Constantinople

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Framing a corner of the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice are high relief sculptures of four Roman emperors known as the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs. Each pair is on a separate panel carved out of Imperial Porphyry, a dark purple-red color reserved in antiquity for emperors, in the early 4th century A.D. The figures are the two senior emperors (Augusti) and two junior emperors (Caesares) of the tetrarchy, a power-sharing system instituted by Emperor Diocletian in 293 that established one senior-junior pair to rule over the eastern empire (Oriens) and another over the western empire (Occidens). It only lasted two decades. By 313 civil war had chipped away at various usurpers and claimants leaving only Constantine I as Augustus Occidens and Licinius I as Augustus Oriens.

It’s not possible to identify the specific rulers depicted in the sculpture. Unlike the portraiture of earlier Roman emperors, the Tetrarchs are not realistic. There are no identifying characteristics or attributes, no naturalism, no individuality in the carving of garments or the men wearing them. Each pair shares an embrace, one bearded figure and one clean-shaved. It’s probable the bearded figures are Augusti and the Caesares are smooth-cheeked, but that’s symbolic of their relative ages and ranks, not a reflection of tonsorial reality. It’s also possible they were carved after the functional demise of the tetrarchy and are actually the three sons of Constantine (Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans) and his nephew Dalmatius, all of whom held the rank of Caesar.

What’s certain is they didn’t originate in Venice. They were looted, carried back to the city after the 1204 Sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Their exact provenance has long been debated. No contemporary chronicles mention the Tetrarchs explicitly. There are references in 14th century sources to marble and porphyry tablets plundered from Constantinople, but not to sculptures. There are also references to stonework being looted from Acre after Venice defeated Genoese forces there in 1258.

Some historians have posited that the 1258 date is accurate, but that it refers to the arrival of the Tetrarchs in Venice rather than plunder from the Genoese castle in Acre. By this theory, the Tetrarchs had remained in Constantinople during the short-lived Latin Empire when Crusaders ruled Byzantium between 1204 and the restoration of the Byzantine Empire under Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1261. When the situation started getting hairy for the Latin Empire, the Tetrarchs and other loot were sent to Venice and arrived contemporaneously around the time of the Genoese loss at Acre.

A popular legend dispenses with all this Crusader jazz. According to this version of events, the sculpture was once four thieves who were caught in the act trying to steal of the basilica’s treasure by Saint Mark himself. They were petrified for their crime affixed to the wall where the treasure is kept to guard it for eternity.

In 1965, a Turkish-German archaeological excavation underneath the Bodrum Mosque, originally a 10th c. church called the Myrelaion, in Istanbul recovered a porphyry fragment of a heel standing on a rectangular base. It seemed to fit the Tetrarchs whose fourth figure is missing his original feet and base. The Myrelaion was built over a 5th century rotunda and next to the Capitolium, a temple associated with the imperial cult built during Constantine’s reign. The Capitolium was also known as the Philadelphion, the “temple of brotherly love,” after the sons of Constantine.

This is the likely source of the Tetrarchs. Each pair would have adorned one of the massive porphyry columns on the portico of the main entrance. The building may even have become known as the Philadelphion because of the Tetrarchs. They were soon identified as Constantine’s sons, regardless of whether that was the original intent, and since they’re embracing, they were seen as representations of fraternal love. (This site has some neat reconstructions of the Philadelphion and the Tetrarchs on their columns.)

So the evidence has piled up, enough that for decades the Tetrarchs were widely assumed to have been plundered from Constantinople, but it has taken until now for an official confirmation.

Last year, the Procurator of St. Mark made an exact replica of all four Tetrarchs in Venice and the foot found in Istanbul. The fragments were combined in one piece, which fits perfectly together. Additional analyses were also made of the materials and the porphyry used for the making of the sculptures and the foot fragment. The results have confirmed that indeed the same material was used for both and therefore they are identical.

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World’s oldest cheese found on Chinese mummy

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Researchers have found the world’s oldest cheese around the neck a of Chinese mummy that was buried almost 4,000 years ago in the arid and salty Taklamakan Desert of the Tarim Basin, now in the Xinjiang region of northwest China. The Tarin mummies, first discovered in the 1930s, have already made a name for themselves because of their exceptional state of preservation and their European features. Now they can add wearing the oldest known cheese to their considerable mystique.

Chemist Andrej Shevchenko of Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics led the study which analyzed the yellow clumps adorning the neck and chest of the Beauty of Xiaohe, one of the earliest Tarin mummies at approximately 3,600 years old. The research team found proteins and fats characteristic of cheese, not other dairy products like milk or butter. These oldest cheese crumbles dates to approximately 1,615 B.C., an exceptional survival given how quickly dairy products decay.

The analysis also showed the mummies’ cheese was made by combining milk with a “starter,” a mix of bacteria and yeast. This technique is still used today to make kefir, a sour, slightly effervescent dairy beverage, and kefir cheese, similar to cottage cheese.

If the people of the cemetery did indeed rely on a kefir starter to make cheese, they were contradicting the conventional wisdom. Most cheese today is made not with a kefir starter but with rennet, a substance from the guts of a calf, lamb or kid that curdles milk. Cheese was supposedly invented by accident when humans began carrying milk in bags made of animal gut.

Making cheese with rennet requires the killing of a young animal, Shevchenko points out, and the kefir method does not. He argues that the ease and low cost of the kefir method would have helped drive the spread of herding throughout Asia from its origins in the Middle East. Even better, both kefir and kefir cheese are low in lactose, making them edible for the lactose-intolerant inhabitants of Asia.

We don’t know why the Tarin mummies were buried with cheese. A snack for the afterlife is one obvious possibility and they were certainly interred with elaborate grave goods and rituals. The Beauty of Xiaohe was coated head to toe in a milky white substance then wrapped in a be-tasseled white woolen cloak. Her elegant attire also includes a felt hat, a string skirt and fur-lined leather boots, all of them in like-new condition. On her chest was placed a wooden phallus and the cloak has three small pouches attached the right edge which contain fragments of the evergreen ephedra, a stimulant with thousands of years of use in Chinese herbal medicine. So sure, the cheese could have just been food for the voyage, or it could have had some entirely distinct ritual significance that we don’t understand.

There is far older evidence of cheesemaking — pottery cheese strainers found in Poland a few years ago date to 5,500 B.C. — so it’s not like it’s a surprise that people were making cheese 2,000 years after that, but these are the first ancient cheese pieces to have survived and been identified.

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Ancient mass grave found under Uffizi Gallery

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

Workers digging underneath the library of Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery to build a new elevator have unearthed the skeletal remains of more than 60 people dating back to late antiquity. Coins found in the graves range in date from the end of the 4th century A.D. to the beginning of the 5th, but of course we don’t know how old the coins were when they went underground with their owners. Radiocarbon dating, DNA testing, stable isotope analysis and osteological examination will help determine the time of death, where they were from, their diets, physical condition, social class and hopefully cause of death.

Over the five months of excavation, archaeologists have thus far seen no evidence of trauma to the bodies, so they were not killed by violent means. Their bones don’t show the signs of malnutrition either, so they didn’t die in a siege or famine. It seems they were felled by illness. Soil samples taken from around the remains indicate they were interred either simultaneously or within a very short timespan. That the bodies were buried to take up as little space as possible, mainly head to toe, and in uneven groupings with children placed in the small empty spaces is evidence that they were done in a hurry, likely as the result of an outbreak of contagious disease.

This area was just south of the Roman walls and prone to the alluvial floods of the Arno. The earliest remains found on the site were architectural and lapidary remains that appear to be construction debris dumped during the city expansion of the late 1st, early 2nd century A.D. The use of the spot as a dump ended by the 5th century when it began to be used as a necropolis. The choice of location — over a dump next to a river regularly in flood — confirms that the burials were an emergency, probably done in the summer while the river was at its lowest.

The timing could coincide with the Plague of Justinian, an epidemic that devastated the Byzantine Empire and what was left of the Western one during the 6th century A.D. Recent DNA studies of 6th century burials in Germany have found that the Yersinia pestis bacterium caused Justinian’s Plague like it would the Black Death eight centuries later.

The bones have been documented in situ and once fully excavated will be studied by Italian archaeologists in conjunction with experts from the University of Mainz who specialize in paleogenetics. Researchers hope to find pathogen DNA that will identify which deadly contagion claimed the lives of the people buried. Besides bubonic plague, possible candidates include cholera, dysentery and influenza.

Archaeologists hope the mass grave will fill in important blanks in the history of Florence in late antiquity. Up until now, very few human remains from this time have been found in various parts of the city. Finding dozens of skeletons in one place provides researchers with a solid sample size that can testify to the living conditions, health, nutrition, work of the Florentine population during a period that is poorly documented.

The five months of excavation were filmed in 3D to make a documentary that can be exhibited in the new addition that is expected to double the gallery space of the Uffizi. The skeletal remains themselves will be reburied somewhere in Florence once the studies are complete.

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