Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

A portrait mummy and a particle accelerator walk into a bar…

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

Okay so she didn’t walk, she was transported, and it wasn’t to a bar. It was to the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory where the first time ever, a mummy was scanned by a particle accelerator. The mummy was donated years ago to the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University by the Hibbard family, wealthy patrons who had funded archaeological digs in Egypt in the early 20th century and received the mummy as a gift (goes the story). They gave this mummy, the remains of a little girl just five years old at the time of her death in the late 1st century A.D., with a portrait of her over her face as if she were peering through the bandages wrapped around her body. It’s that portrait that captured researcher’s interest.

The encaustic-on-wood panel paintings preserved in pristine color and detail by the dry desert heat of Egypt are so personal, evocative and haunting that they’ve been a hot-ticket item for wide sale and distribution in the shady antiquities trade since the first ones were found in the 17th century. Today the mummy portraits number about 900, most of them unearthed from the Faiyum necropolis southwest of Cairo, as was the little girl whose remains were discovered in Hawara at the entrance to the Faiyum oasis. The Faiyum portraits are the largest assemblage of ancient panel paintings still in existence today.

Only 100 of them are still intact and attached to the mummies they depict so expertly. The Hibbard mummy is part of an elite cadre, therefore. And yet, nobody in the archaeological department or on the staff of Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art had any idea she existed. She just hung out at the Seminary for a century, uncommented upon, until museum curator Essi Rönkkö saw her in person. With the curatorial team already in the process of collecting mummy portraits for an upcoming exhibition Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (ie, Faiyum), Rönkkö took advantage of the unbelievably rare opportunity to add the girl’s mummy to the portraits going on display.

The child’s body is wrapped tightly in thick layers of linen wrappings, the outer layer of which cross each other in a painstaking geometric arrangement that secure and frame her painted visage. Painted with pigment and sealed with beeswax, the girl is shown with her hair is tied at the nape of her neck and wearing a red tunic with gold jewelry. Because of her secure bindings, there was no way for researchers to study her insides without causing damage, but now that they had a real matched pair, the bones still safely wrapped in their original bandages and the intact portrait above them, researchers wanted to examine both the human and her representation with the best technology at their disposal.

In August they took the mummy to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where she was given a CT scan. This provided the team with a 3D map of the mummy’s inside and confirmed she was about five years old when she died. On Monday they considerably upped the ante and took her to the Argonne National Laboratory in Evanston to see what the immense light power of X-ray scattering (the technology that revealed the contents of that medallion box from the French crypt so clearly I heard my own jaw drop when I first saw the video) could tell us about her.

“Intact portrait mummies are exceedingly rare, and to have one here on campus was revelatory for the class and exhibition,” said Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. […]

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our undergraduate students — and for me — to work at understanding the whole object that is this girl mummy,” Walton said. “Today’s powerful analytical tools allow us to nondestructively do the archaeology scientists couldn’t do 100 years ago.”

The synchrotron experiment at Argonne is a modern-day version of 19th-century England’s “mummy unwrapping” parties, Walton said. The Northwestern team collaborated with scientists at Argonne and used the extremely brilliant high-energy synchrotron X-rays produced by Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source to probe the materials and objects inside the mummy, while leaving the mummy and her wrappings intact.

“From a medical research perspective, I am interested in what we can learn about her bone tissue,” Stock said. “We also are investigating a scarab-shaped object, her teeth and what look like wires near the mummy’s head and feet.”[…]

At the Advanced Photon Source, Stock and his team shined the pencil-shaped X-ray beam (about twice the diameter of a human hair) on areas of high-density in the mummy that were identified by the CT scan. They now will use the X-ray diffraction patterns as “fingerprints” to identify each crystalline material. For example, is the black rounded object seen on the CT scan a gold object or a rock?

The findings from the synchrotron experiment, CT scan and other scientific analyses and studies of history conducted by the students will help researchers and historians better understand the context in which the Garrett mummy was excavated in 1911 as well as Roman-period mummification practices. Also, conservators will use the information to best preserve the mummy.

“We’re basically able to go back to an excavation that happened more than 100 years ago and reconstruct it with our contemporary analysis techniques,” Walton said. “All the information we find will help us enrich the entire historic context of this young girl mummy and the Roman period in Egypt.”

Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt opens at the Block Museum of Art on January 13th and runs through April 22nd, 2018.

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Iron Age cauldrons discovered at feasting site

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

A team from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) has unearthed an unprecedented collection of Iron Age metal artifacts at Glenfield Park in Leicestershire. The excavation took place in the winter of 2013/2014 in advance of construction of a large-scale warehouse and distribution center on the site which was known to have had Iron Age remains from a small excavation in the 1990s and occasional discoveries after that by field walkers. What nobody knew was the size, extent and age of the Iron Age occupation.

The team focused on a four-hectare area dense with features characteristic of an Iron Age settlement — roundhouses, enclosures, postholes, pits — located at the north end of the development site. The trenches dug by ULAS archaeologists revealed that the full size of the settlement was almost 12 hectares in area and was inhabited throughout the Iron Age and Roman era. The ULAS team also unearthed metalwork, and lots of it: 11 metal cauldrons, either complete or all but, several ring-headed dress pins, an iron involuted brooch, a cast copper alloy horn-cap that may have been part of a ceremonial staff or mace.

The cauldrons are the stand-out discovery. It is the only second multiple cauldron Iron Age find in Europe, the farthest north on mainland Britain and unique in the East Midlands area. The combination of metalwork is entirely unique; nothing of this range and variety has been found before.

Most of the cauldrons appear to have been deliberately laid in a large circular enclosure ditch that surrounded a building. They had been placed in either upright or inverted positions, before the ditch was filled in, suggesting that they were buried to mark the cessation of activities associated with this part of the site. Other cauldrons were found buried across the site, suggesting that significant events were being marked over a long period of time as the settlement developed.

The cauldrons are made from several separate parts, comprising iron rims and upper bands, hemispherical copper alloy bowls and two iron ring handles attached to the upper band.

They appear to have been a variety of sizes, with rims ranging between 360mm and 560mm in diameter, with the total capacity of all cauldrons being approximately 550 litres, which illustrates their potential to provide for large groups of people that may have gathered at the settlement from the wider Iron Age community of the area.

John [Thomas, director of the excavation and ULAS Project Officer] said: “Due to their large capacity it is thought that Iron Age cauldrons were reserved for special occasions and would have been important social objects, forming the centrepiece of major feasts, perhaps in association with large gatherings and events.

“The importance of cauldrons as symbolic objects is reflected in their frequent appearance in early medieval Irish and Welsh literature, which has been drawn upon in studies of Iron Age society. They are rarely found in large numbers and, with the exception of a discovery in Chiseldon, where 17 cauldrons were found in a pit, there have been few excavated examples in recent years.”

Ritual depositions of objects used for ceremonial banquets appears to have been a common practice in Iron Age Britain and Europe, and the cauldrons would have been very important, very expensive, essential parts of the feast preparations which made them worthy candidates for deposition after the feasting was over.

Because they were in such fragile condition, the cauldrons were not fully excavated in situ, but raised en bloc still encased in the soil in which they’d lain for thousands of years. Before the painstaking excavation of the soil blocks in laboratory conditions could begin, the cauldrons were sent to the hospital, Paul Strickland Scanner Centre in Middlesex, which had CT scanners large enough to fit the massive metal-stuffed soil blocks.

The scans gave archaeologists a roadmap to follow when excavating — the orientation of the cauldrons, their sizes, fragment placement — and a glimpse at even more exciting possibilities, namely evidence of decoration, something that is very rare on metalwork from this period. One of the complete cauldrons has a raised stem and leaf decoration on the iron band near the handle, a motif that is reminiscent of the “Vegetal Style” of Celtic art from around the 4th century B.C. One of the smaller copper alloy bowls appears to have a domed rivet or raised boss decoration.

Conservation and excavation of the cauldrons will be taking place at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), and things are already looking promising.

Liz Barham, Senior Conservator at MOLA said: “Already we have been able to uncover glimpses of the detailed histories of these cauldrons through CT scanning, including evidence of their manufacture and repair, and have identified sooty residues still clinging to the base of one of the cauldrons from the last time it was suspended over a fire. During the upcoming conservation we hope to discover much more about the entire assemblage. If we’re lucky, we may even find food residues from the last time they were used – over 2000 years ago.”

This video gives a brief overview of the site and the discoveries, including clips of the first cauldron’s CT scan.

This one focuses on the CT scans of the cauldrons:

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Fancy chariot and horse burial found in central China

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017


Archaeologists have found four ancient chariots and the remains of nearly 100 horses buried in a tomb in Xinzheng City, Henan province, central China. The chariots date to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.) and one of them in particular is an exceptional example of a luxurious vehicle with all the bells and whistles of the era. It’s huge, 2.56 meters (about 8’5″) long and 1.66 meters (about 5’5″) wide, and was elegantly appointed with bronze and bone decorations. The chariot has set a new record as the largest ancient horse-drawn vehicle discovered in Xinzheng City, which is saying something because more than 3,000 tombs have been unearthed in the area, including chariot and horse burials.

Scientists believe the tomb may have belonged to a noble family of the Zheng state (806–375 BC), which was a vassal kingdom that governed this part of central China during the Zhou dynasty (1100–221 BC). […]

The leader of the dig, Ma Juncai, told Xinhua that no written records have so far been uncovered at the site, making it unclear who the burial pit belonged to, but archaeologists think it likely to have been the funeral site for a Zheng lord.

The site was first excavated in 2001. Two pits were revealed by the dig back then, but work was interrupted for 16 years until archaeologists were finally able to return to the location and pick up where they left off in February 2017. Over the nine months they’ve been excavating, archaeologists have unearthed the skeletal remains of more than 90 horses in addition to the four chariots. Pit 3 is the largest of the three tombs, and boy did they need the space. Dig leader and Henan Province Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology archaeologist Ma Juncai estimates there are at least 100 horses buried here, but there could well be more. She believes there are more chariots yet to be unearthed as well.

A number of bronze artifacts have also been discovered in Pit 3. Archaeologists hope a thorough study of the bronze pieces will shed new light on the technological prowess and manufacturing methods of the period. They also hope the bronze artifacts might reveal more information about who was buried in the tomb, their social status and fill in some blanks about Zheng-era funerary practices.

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Tutankhamun’s neglected gold gets its day

Friday, November 17th, 2017

When Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922, there was such an immense wealth piled inside the small space that his team focused on the large ticket item and packed the rest up. Even finely embossed gold artifacts weren’t important enough to get attention compared to Tutankhamun’s death mask, especially since they were found in pieces before being stashed in the wooden box. They photographed the contents but that was it; they were left uncleaned, unexamined and otherwise undocumented. One of those wooden boxes has been in the stores of the Egyptian Museum Cairo ever since, still uncleaned and unexamined, for decades until 2013 when a collaboration between the Egyptian Museum and Tübingen University archaeologists set out to remedy this 90-year-old oversight. Four years later, the long-awaited goal has been achieved.

The team found the objects in Carter’s original wood crate and began to document and research each piece. They were restored and drawings made of their shape and decorations. The work was painstakingly detailed (hence the four years). In addition to the restoration, documentation and research, the team also faced jigsawing together of the gold fragments. Conservators Christian Eckmann and Katja Broschat were able to place many of the fragments together, ultimately producing about 100 complete or close to complete gold applications that they think were once fittings mounted on bows cases, quivers and horse bridles. One recomposed in their original configurations, the applications could be studied from an art historical perspective. Images embossed on the gold were studied in detail by team member Julia Bertsch, doctoral candidate in archaeology at Tübingen, who was able to identify Egyptian motifs from Middle Eastern ones.

Among these are images of fighting animals and goats at the tree of life that are foreign to Egyptian art and must have come to Egypt from the Levant. “Presumably these motifs, which were once developed in Mesopotamia, made their way to the Mediterranean region and Egypt via Syria,” explains Peter Pfälzner. “This again shows the great role that ancient Syria played in the dissemination of culture during the Bronze Age.”

Interestingly, he adds, similar embossed gold applications with thematically comparable images were found in a tomb in the Syrian Royal city of Qatna. There, the team of archaeologists from Tübingen led by Pfälzner, discovered a pristine king’s grave in 2002. It dates back to the time of around 1340 B.C., so it is just a bit older than Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt. The archaeologist says, “This remarkable aspect provided the impetus for our project on the Egyptian finds.” Now,” says Pfälzner, “we need to solve the riddle of how the foreign motifs on the embossed gold applications came to be adopted in Egypt.” The professor says that here, chemical analyses have been illuminating. “The results showed that the embossed gold applications with Egyptian motifs and the others with foreign motifs were made of gold of differing compositions,” he says. “That does not necessarily mean the pieces were imported. It may be that various local workshops were responsible for producing objects in various styles — and that one used Near Eastern models.”

On Wednesday the gold embossed fittings went on public display for the first time in almost a century in an exhibition at the Egyptian Museum. When this temporary show closes, the artifacts will find a permanent home at the new Grand Egyptian Museum near the pyramids of Giza.

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Earliest evidence of winemaking found in Georgia

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the remains of a Neolithic village in the South Caucasus about 20 miles south of Tblisi, Georgia, have discovered the earliest evidence of winemaking in the world. An internation team from the University of Toronto and the Georgian National Museum have been exploring two Early Ceramic Neolithic (6000-4500 B.C.) sites, Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, and sent fragment of ceramic jars unearthed at the sites to specialists at the University of Pennsylvania for residue analysis. Using the latest and greatest technology available, a combination of Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry (FT-IR), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), and liquid chromatography linear ion trap/orbitrap mass spectrometry (LC-MS-MS), and radiocarbon dating, researchers were able to confirm the presence of wine dating to 6,000–5,800 B.C. in the pots. That’s 600-1,000 years older than the previous contender, wine residue found in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

The South Caucasus area was an epicenter of the transition from nomadic lifestyles to permanent settlements after the end of the last Ice Age. Now fixed in one place, people were able to grow their own food, planting grains and cereals like einkorn wheat and barely that are trendy again today as heritage foods. They also branched out from those staples, growing fruits, root vegetables, herbs, nuts both tree and legume. Among the fruits they cultivated was the wild Eurasian grape, domesticated during this period in Neolithic settlements and so successfully that it would become the progenitor of all 10,000 or so grape cultivars that produce 99% of the wine in the world today.

Finding ways to convert their crops into mind-altering substances was a natural next step, as was devising vessels in which to store, ferment and serve the harvest products. The firing of shaped clay to make pottery was invented during this period, the early 7th millenium B.C., for this very purpose. The huge jars found at Gadachrili and Shulaveris (or, more accurately, the fragments thereof) are examples of some of the earliest pottery ever made. Archaeologists believe they were used for all of the above purposes — storage of the grapes, fermentation into wine, aging into drinkable wine, and the moment everyone was doubtless waiting for, serving the wine.

Their footprints and walls visible above-ground today, the mudbrick roundhouses of Gadachrili Gora and its next-door neighboor Shulaveris Gora were certainly inhabited by grape-loving people. Pollen and other traces of the prehistoric vines have been found in copious quantities. A large pot from this period discovered at a nearby site is decorated with grape clusters. Intact ceramic pots have not been found at the two sites that are the focus of the study. Pottery production was in its infancy. There was no large scale industry yet, and because these settlements were in continuous use for thousands of years, the pottery that has been found in excavations is fragmentary and scattered.

The team sought out the best examples of sherds from the 2012–13 and 2014–2016 dig seasons, pieces from the base have the most potential to contain residue accumulated over years of use. The final tally was six sherds from the bodies and 13 from the bases of 19 large jars. The pot fragments and samples of the soil in which they were found (to identify/rule out environmental or bacteriological contaminants) made their way to the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers say the combined archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic and radiocarbon data provided by the analysis demonstrate that the Eurasian grapevine Vitis vinifera was abundant around the sites. It grew under ideal environmental conditions in early Neolithic times, similar to premium wine-producing regions in Italy and southern France today.

“Our research suggests that one of the primary adaptations of the Neolithic way of life as it spread to Caucasia was viniculture,” says [Stephen Batiuk, senior research associate in the department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations and the Archaeology Centre at the University of Toronto]. “The domestication of the grape apparently led eventually led to the emergence of a wine culture in the region.”

Batiuk describes an ancient society in which the drinking and offering of wine penetrates and permeates nearly every aspect of life from medical practice to special celebrations, from birth to death, to everyday meals at which toasting is common.

“As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopeias, cuisines, economics, and society throughout the ancient Near East,” he said.

The results have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be read online free of charge here.

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Temple with oldest mural in Peru engulfed in flame

Monday, November 13th, 2017

The remains of a 4,500-year-old temple in Peru’s pre-Incan Ventarrón archaeological complex was devastated by fire on November 12th. As estimated 95% of the temple complex has suffered heavy damage as high winds fanned the flames faster than the archaeologists on site and the firefighters could contain them. One of the walls of the temple was decorated with a gripping mural of a dear being caught in a net. At about 4,000 years old, it’s the oldest known mural in Peru and the oldest in the Americas that has been absolutely dated and archaeologically excavated. It has been severely damaged by the smoke and heat. Whether there’s any hope of repair or recovery is uncertain at this time. While most of the fire is out now, we won’t know more until it has been entirely extinguished and archaeologists have the chance to examine the devastation.

Huaca Ventarrón was discovered in the Lambayeque region of northern Peru in 2007. Radiocarbon dating of the mud brick structure and artifacts revealed that the large complex was built in three phases, each named after the decorative motifs in the artwork — the “Temple of fish and opossum,” “Red-White Temple or Deer Hunting,” and “Green Temple” — over the course of the thousand years between 2,600 and 1,600 B.C. This is very early in the Mesoamerican timeline, a period now known as the Initial Formative or Preclassic Era, and the murals and objects discovered there feature iconographic and architectural approaches that have not been found anywhere else.

Since the site was opened to visitors in 2014, the monumental architecture, a matrix for later cultures who inhabited the coastal desert region of northern Peru, and the murals have made Ventarrón an important stop on archaeological tours of the Lambayeque region. More than 15,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them Peruvian nationals, have visited the site, often in conjunction with a trip to see the famed Lords of Sipan Moche tombs and museum nearby.

Indeed it was the director of the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum Walter Alva, who in 2007 led the excavation that discovered the Ventarrón temple complex, tasked with announcing the horrifying news.

“I have received the lamentable and tragic news of a fire that has destroyed the archaeological monument of Ventarron,” museum head Walter Alva said in a statement. […]

The fire devastated the ancient mural as well as pottery vessels and records of the Ventarron Archaeological Comoplex in Pomalca, in the Lambayeque region, television images showed.

Workers from the Pomalca agribusiness company triggered the blaze when they ignited a sugarcane field.

“We are losing an exceptional monument unique to its generation,” said Alva, who discovered the site in 2007. “I hope there is an investigation and responsibility established.”

“I can only express my outrage and sadness for this irreparable loss.”

The temple’s central staircase leads up to an altar that archaeologists believe was used to make offerings to the gods and to worship fire. Never disrespect the local gods, people. If history teaches us anything it’s that they’ll get back at you with as painful an irony they can devise.

The Culture Ministry in Lima is investigating the fire and will file charges based on cultural patrimony protections should they find there was any negligence or failure to adhere to all statutes regarding potentially dangerous activities near historically significant sites. I can’t say I’m holding my breath on this one.

If you can stomach it, here is video of the fire ripping through the temple complex. It was shot by archaeologist Ignacio Alva Meneses.

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London Mithraeum is finally home again

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

The remains of the Temple of Mithras discovered under central London’s Walbrook Square in 1954 has returned to its original location and it looks great, better than it has in 50+ years. The temple, first built around 240 A.D., was unearthed by archaeologists William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams in the very last days of a two-year archaeological survey of the site before the construction of new office buildings. The temple was identified as a Mithraeum when the beautifully sculpted head of Mithras, complete with Phrygian cap, was found. A reporter happened to be there and took a picture. Mithras’ beauty caused a sensation and almost half a million people came to visit the excavation.

The ensuing public outcry forced the city to abandon its original plan — the demolition of the temple to make way for ugly concrete squares of cheap mid-century offices — and come up with a compromise solution. The excavation would be extended and once the archaeologists were done, the temple remains would be removed and reinstalled a few hundred feet away at ground level so the public could enjoy it. In 1962, plan B was completed and London’s Mithraeum was reconstructed on an empty patch of land on Victoria Street. The objects discovered would go the Museum of London, except for the incredibly rare surviving wood benches and joists from the temple’s original floor, preserved in the waterlogged soil where the lost Walbrook River had once coursed. They were thrown out like so much trash.

Unfortunately plan B was poorly executed. Modern concrete was used to patch up holes and build up some of the lost masonry. The temple was not installed in its original configuration and was basically unrecognizable compared to how it had looked in situ. Things did not improve as the city grew up around it, leaving it looking like a random, weird, squat rectangle of brick and mortar benches.

In 2010, the Walbrook Square site was bought by Bloomberg LP who planned to build a grand new European HQ there. Of course they knew about the potential for archaeological remains under the site, so an in depth survey was commissoned and this time the soggy muck of the lost Walbrook River turned in an even more spectacular feat of preservation. The excavation unearthed entire city streets, large slices of Roman London from its earliest days in 40 A.D. to the final withdrawal of Roman troops in the 5th century. Wood streets, wood walls, wood wells, a wood door, thousands and thousands of assorted objects made of leather, wood, textiles as well as metal and stone. The oldest dated writing ever found in Britain was discovered on one of hundreds of Roman wood tablets from the Bloomberg dig.

The Bloomberg coporation has far deeper pockets than the small potatoes real estate developers in 1954, so it made ambitious plans to include all of these archaeological marvels in an underground display space in the Bloomberg. Not only would Roman London’s many layers be viewable to the public, but it would foot the bill to rescue the poor, benighted reconstructed temple remains from their incongruous street-level location and overmortared neglect. The temple would return to its original location, dismantled, cleaned of modern interpolations and reinstalled in situ as it had once been. There it would have the chance to be seen in its proper context, safe from the elements, and would even be reunited with another piece of the temple that was discovered during the recent excavation.

Tha planned opening date for the new Bloomberg building and its greatest of all basements was 2017, and right on schedule, the London Mithraeum at Bloomberg SPACE opens November 14th.

Michael Bloomberg, the founder of the company, said they were stewards of the ancient site and its artefacts. “London has a long history as a crossroads for culture and business, and we are building on that tradition.”

The Mithraeum incorporates a new daylit art gallery at ground level with an opening installation, Another View from Nowhen, by the Dublin artist Isabel Nolan. A huge glass case displays more than 600 of the 14,000 objects found on the site, including a wooden door, a hobnailed sandal, a tiny gladiator’s helmet carved in amber, and a wooden tablet with the oldest record of a financial transaction from Britain.

You can’t just walk in to see this archaeological treasure. Entrance is free of charge, but you must book first to guarantee entry. Click this link to book tickets, and have a poke around the website while you’re at it because it’s really very good. They worked hard to collect images and footage of the 1950s excavation and have incorporated them effectively on the site.



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Pylos warrior tomb’s tiniest treasure is its greatest

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

When the intact grave of a Bronze Age man was discovered in Pylos, southwestern Greece, two years ago, it was so dense with luxurious grave goods that it set a new record for the wealthiest single grave ever found in Greece. Its location, next to the so-called Palace of Nestor of Trojan War fame, and the richness of the contents even generated breathless speculation that this might be the tomb of a Homeric hero. Entirely groundless speculation — the shaft tomb is around 300 years older than the palace which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C. — but it’s an inescapable side-effect when archaeologists discover ivory-handled, gold-covered weapons, four gold signet rings, more than 1,000 semi-precious stone beads, silver and bronze cups, a massive gold chain, 50 seal stones decorated with Minoan motifs, carved ivory and ever so much more, enough to reignite a million childhood fantasies of pirate booty treasure maps where X always marks the spot.

Little encrusted piece before conservation. Photo courtesy the University of Cincinnati.After the dust from the dig had settled, the team, led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, had unearthed more than 3,000 burial objects, all of which were sent to the Archaeological Museum of Chora for triage, study and conservation. One of the objects was a small sort of kite-shaped piece caked in thick lime accretions entirely obscuring its surface. It was put in the To Do pile while conservators focused on the larger ticket items, like the heaps of gold, weapons and jewels.

They were finally able to beging cleaning the wee thing — it’s less than an inch and a half long — a year later and discovered that under all lime scale was one of the greatest pieces of art in Greek history. It’s a sealstone, not made of precious metals like the signet rings found in the tomb, but of agate. This one’s value is in the astonishing detail and precision in the miniature carving.

The “Pylos Combat Agate,” as the seal has come to be known for the fierce hand-to-hand battle it portrays, promises not only to rewrite the history of ancient Greek art, but to help shed light on myth and legend in an era of Western civilization still steeped in mystery. […]

Davis and Stocker say the Pylos Combat Agate’s craftsmanship and exquisite detail make it the finest discovered work of glyptic art produced in the Aegean Bronze Age.

“What is fascinating is that the representation of the human body is at a level of detail and musculature that one doesn’t find again until the classical period of Greek art 1,000 years later,” explained Davis. “It’s a spectacular find.”

Even more extraordinary, the husband-and-wife team point out, is that the meticulously carved combat scene was painstakingly etched on a piece of hard stone measuring just 3.6 centimeters, or just over 1.4 inches, in length. Indeed, many of the seal’s details, such as the intricate weaponry ornamentation and jewelry decoration, become clear only when viewed with a powerful camera lens and photomicroscopy.

“Some of the details on this are only a half-millimeter big,” said Davis. “They’re incomprehensibly small.”

The miniature masterpiece portrays a victorious warrior who, having already vanquished one unfortunate opponent sprawled at his feet, now turns his attention to another much more formidable foe, plunging his sword into the shielded man’s exposed neck in what is sure to be a final and fatal blow.

This thing is unbelievable. I think I’ve stared at the fallen fighter on the left for a solid hour.

Here is an enlarged drawing of the artwork so you can see the astonishing detail the carver was able to achieve with whatever meagre magnification options were available in 1,500 B.C. (or maybe none at all):

Beyond all the superlatives that can and should be showered upon this marvel of artistry, researchers believe the sealstone reveals new information of major significance about Minoan culture and their interactions with the Mycenaeans who so thirstily drank of Minoan culture and spread it throughout the Greek mainland.

In a series of presentations and a paper published last year, Davis and Stocker revealed that the discovery of four gold signet rings bearing highly detailed Minoan iconography, along with other Minoan-made riches found within the tomb, indicates a far greater and complex cultural interchange took place between the Mycenaeans and Minoans.

But the skill and sophistication of the Pylos Combat Agate is unparalleled by anything uncovered before from the Minoan-Mycenaean world, say the researchers. And that raises a bigger question: How does this change our understanding of Greek art in the Bronze Age?

“It seems that the Minoans were producing art of the sort that no one ever imagined they were capable of producing,” explained Davis. “It shows that their ability and interest in representational art, particularly movement and human anatomy, is beyond what it was imagined to be. Combined with the stylized features, that itself is just extraordinary.”

The revelation, he and Stocker say, prompts a reconsideration of the evolution and development of Greek art.

“This seal should be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way that prehistoric art is viewed,” said Stocker.

For more about the Griffin Warrior tomb, check out this thoroughly documented, content-rich website created by Davis and Stocker and the Pylos team. Pictures are a bit small, alas, but they need to pinch bandwidth pennies because conserving an enormous quantity of priceless archaeological artifacts is an expensive proposition, especially trying to keep the fragmentary bronze armour from falling apart. You can contribute to the project here. All donations go directly to conservation.

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Sasanian loom discovered in Northern Iraq

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the site of Gird-î Qalrakh in the Iraqi-Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah have discovered a loom from the Sasanian period, around the 5th or 6th century A.D. The loom weights, made from clay, survive in a mudbrick structure with mudbrick shelving and/or benches in the interior. (Make sure to click on the image to see it full size because everything is baked mud color and looks the same in the small pic. You can see the round loom weights with holes in them clearly on the center left of the shot in the large version.)

Sasanian and even more ancient Neo-Assyrian remains have been found at Gird-î Qalrakh since it was opened to archaeological exploration after the ouster of Sadam Hussein, but the site is still largely unexplored, an alluring terra incognita that attracted the attentions of Prof. Dirk Wicke, expert in Near Eastern Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology at Goethe University in Frankfurt. In 2015, he secured funding to lead a team of Goethe University archaeologists and students to the Shahrizor plain in Northern Iraq. This year’s six-week dig is the program’s second campaign.

The objective of the excavations on the top and slope sections of the settlement hill, some 26 meters high, was to provide as complete a sequence as possible for the region’s ceramic history. Understanding the progression in ceramics has long been a goal of research undertaken on the Shahrizor plain, a border plain of Mesopotamia with links to the ancient cultural regions of both Southern Iraq and Western Iran. These new insights will make it easier to categorise other archaeological finds chronologically. The excavation site is ideal for establishing the progression of ceramics, according to archaeology professor Dirk Wicke: “It is a small site but it features a relatively tall hill in which we have found a complete sequence of ceramic shards. It seems likely that the hill was continuously inhabited from the early 3rd millennium BC through to the Islamic period.”

However, the archaeologists had not expected to find a Sasanian loom (ca. 4th-6th century AD), whose burnt remnants, and clay loom weights in particular, were found and documented in-situ. In addition to the charred remains, there were numerous seals, probably from rolls of fabric, which indicate that large-scale textile production took place at the site. From the neo-Assyrian period (ca. 9th-7th century BC), by contrast, a solid, stone-built, terraced wall was discovered, which points to major construction work having taken place at the site. It is possible that the ancient settlement was refortified and continued to be used in the early 1st millennium BC.

That’s an extraordinary leap forward in understanding of a little known site accomplished in only six weeks, and it’s only scratching the surface. Dr. Wicke plans to return with his team next year to pick up where they left off, but first he has to ensure they have the financial support for a proper excavation and that the volatile political climate will be stable enough to keep everyone as safe as possible.

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Unique Punic War lion helmet found off Sicilian coast

Sunday, November 5th, 2017

A team of divers have made a unique discovery on the seabed off the coast of Sicily: a Punic War-era helmet with a lion decoration. It is a Montefortino helmet, a Celtic style that was spread from central Europe down the boot of Italy to Western Europe. They typically are a half ovoid shape with a small knob at the crest and cheek flaps tied under the chin by leather straps. Rome adopted the helmet style and then forcibly adopted much of the world while wearing them, so they also became known as “Roman helmets.” The lion, or possibly a lion skin posed in an aggressive stance, decorates the crest knob. This is the first lion decoration ever found on this type of helmet. The only example even vaguely in the same category had some kind of bird decoration, but it was very stylized and can’t be pinned down. The lion, on the other hand, is clearly a lion.

Marine archaeologists have dated the helmet to 241 B.C., based on some of the pottery remains at the find site, the style of the armour and the date of a battle which has proven an incalculably rich source of archaeological material from the First Punic War. Egadi, an island in the Aegadian archipelago about 4 miles off the west coast of Sicily. It was the site of one of the last naval clashes of the First Punic War. In 241 B.C., 200 Roman ships went up against 100 Carthaginian ships in the Battle of the Egadi Islands. Well, actually, the Roman ships appear to have gone up against other Roman ships, mainly, captured by Carthage in previous naval battles such as the Battle of Drepanum (249 B.C.) in which Polybius claimed 97 ships had been taken and absorbed into the Punic navy. Rome’s superior numbers took the day this time, and Carthage was soundly spanked. So soundly, in fact, that they surrendered shortly thereafter ending the First Punic War.

The net effect of Carthage’s deployment of Roman vessels is that even though Rome won the Battle of the Egadi Islands most emphatically, the ship parts, cargo and weapons strewn on the seafloor are predominantly Roman. The lion helmet could be as well, but that can’t be confirmed because of how widespread the Montefortino helmet was at the time of the First Punic War.

Possibly the lion-theme decoration can be traced back to a city allied with Rome where the influence of the myth of Hercules – who was often represented wearing lion skin on his head – was strong.

It is also possible that the lion insignia indicated a rank of authority within the Roman army at this time. “The helmets could have been worn by any number of mercenaries of South Italian or Sicilian origin. The problem is, both sides were hiring in the same areas,” Royal told Haaretz. “The Romans also wore a version of this style. Hence, some helmets were likely worn by mercenaries in service of the Carthaginians, but some may also represent Roman soldiers lost in the battle.”

Also representing shipfuls of dead Roman soldiers is the large number of bronze battering rams (rostra) which are still rare finds, but have increased geometrically thanks to Egadi’s extraordinary pile of Roman battle detritus. Out of the 13 battering rams found so far at Egadi over the past decade, only two of them have inscriptions identifying them as Carthaginian. The others have inscriptions too, but all of them in Latin.

The vicious, spiky-looking bronze battering rams are of great historical significance because of their badassness and rarity, yes, but finding so many in one place connected to a single battle has provided scholars with a unique opportunity to study the ships they used to be attached to, now long since rotted away in the balmy Mediterranean waters. The rams were fixed to the prow of ships, custom cast to ensure a perfect fit along the bows. Researchers can calculate the dimensions of the keels based on the size and shape of the rostra.

Based on those measurements, the researchers believe the ships were triremes, the principal type of warship in the Roman-era Mediterranean, which boasted three decks of oarsmen.

The archaeologists calculate that the ships could not have been more than 30 meters long and just 4.5 meter in beam, far less than the 36 meters previously estimated for the Athenian trireme. […]

In battle, the trireme was propelled solely by its 170 rowers. These wooden ships are believed to have been able to achieve a speed of 10 knots at the critical moment of impact.

Rams mounted below the waterline had three horizontal planes that would slice into their targets’ timbers, cracking the enemy ship. The dispersal of amphorae and other goods on the seabed indicates that ships were indeed sunk, but did not break up.

The lion helmet, the other helmets and battering rams recovered this season are currently being cleaned and conserved. Archaeologists to learn more about the one-of-a-kind lion helmet and to expand our understanding of Rome’s naval capabilities by studying the finds.

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