Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Early Neolithic mother & child burial found in Bulgaria

Friday, May 31st, 2019

Archaeologists excavating the prehistoric settlement of Slatina in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia have discovered an extremely rare early Neolithic grave. It is about 7,600 years old and contains the skeleton of an adult woman believed to have been buried with her child. She was placed in fetal position and interred with her baby in her arms next to a house on the periphery of the settlement.

Discovered by construction workers in 1950, Sofia’s Slatina Neolithic Settlement was first excavated in 1958 and was dated to the 3rd millennium B.C. Unfortunately the urban sprawl of Sofia in the 1970s destroyed much of the settlement, reducing a site originally estimated cover 20 acres to a tenth of its size. Later excavations, which have been ongoing since 1985, extended the timeline of habitation significantly. In fact its earliest layers date to around 6000 B.C., the Early Neolithic when the first farmers and livestock breeders settled in Buglaria.

Two phases of Early Neolithic development have been identified from the pottery at the settlement. The first, named the Slatina phase, featured pottery vessels with white decorations. The second, the Kremikovtsi phase, featured pottery with red, brown and burgundy decorations. One home had pottery remains from both phases, used to create six layers of flooring alternating crushed pottery with a thick coating of clay.

Most of the finds have been dwellings and household items. The houses vary in size enormously. One of the larger homes has an area of more than 3200 square feet; another 1600 square feet; one of the smaller ones just over 100. Made of wattle and daub with wooden posts supporting the walls, these are the largest known homes from the Early Neolithic.

The latest excavation has unearthed numerous implements used in daily life — a bone spoon, pottery vessels, a stamp — and in religious rituals — sections of sacrificial altars. Working tools like kilns and millstones have also been found and archaeologists have been able to gather a great deal of information about how the Neolithic settlers of Slatina lived.

There is very little information, on the other hand, about how they died and were buried.

“The upcoming research [of the 7,600-year-old grave] is going to provide information about the physical features of the people who in today’s Bulgaria gave the start of the first European civilization,” the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences says.


The Birdman of Sibera

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a man buried with dozens of bird beaks at the Ust-Tartas archaeological site in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Between 30 and 50 beaks were found assembled together at the back of the individual’s skull. Because of this placement and how the beaks appear to be massed together to form a single object, researchers believe it was a garment — a collar, a headdress, a robe, perhaps a form of protective armature (for ritual purposes, not combat).

The beaks were removed en bloc for laboratory excavation at the Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography. They will have to be examined by ornithologists to determine which birds they came from, but their long, thin dimensions suggest they’re heron or crane beaks. So far only one skull as been found connected to its beak. The rest visible on the top layer are beaks alone lined up closely side-by-side. It’s not clear how the beaks were put together. No mounting holes have been found so far that would have made it possible to attach them to each other or to a fabric backing. Fully excavating the block, separating out the individual beaks to count, document and study them will take months of painstaking work.

In another burial found next to the Birdman, archaeologists discovered a two-layered grave. The top layer held the remains of two children around five and 10 years old at the time of death. A wooden overlay covered the bottom layer, separating the children’s grave from the one beneath them. In the bottom were the remains of an adult male buried with numerous artifacts.

The most unusual of the grave goods was a set of two bronze circles and a bronze rectangle. They were placed near his skull with the two circles underneath the rectangle almost like a pair of eyeglasses. The circles are slightly mounded and have small circular apertures at the peak. Fragments of organic material were found inside the hemispheres, indicating they may have been part of a funerary mask or headdress. If that’s the case, the holes in the bronze circles could have been cut to allow vision. Across his waist and on his left arm were five polished crescent-shaped stones thought to have had ritual uses.

“These are unique items, we are very excited indeed to have found them,” said Lidia Kobeleva.

“Both men must have carried special roles in the society. I say so because we have been working on this site for a while and unearthed more than 30 burials. They all had interesting finds, but nothing we found earlier was as impressive as discoveries in these two graves.

We suppose both men were some kind of priests.”

The burials in this area are from the Bronze Age Odinov culture which inhabited the Ishim river basin of Western Siberia around 4,800 years ago.


Imperial head found in medieval Rome

Saturday, May 25th, 2019

A beautiful larger-than-life white marble head of a statue from the Imperial era has been discovered in a late medieval wall. It was discovered Friday morning by archaeologists from the Capitoline Superintendence for Cultural Heritage excavating the Via Alessandrina, a 16th century road that runs between the Forums of Trajan, Augustus and Nerva. It was the main artery of the Alessandrino neighborhood, the first systematic urban renewal project in the area between the Forum of Nerva and Trajan’s Column. Beginning in 1570 at the behest of Cardinal Michele Bonelli, nephew of Pope Pius V, the site was reclaimed from water, scattered ancient remains and vegetation, raised and leveled for new construction. The road is all that remains of the neighborhood now. It was demolished between 1930 and 1933 to make way for the construction of what would become Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Archaeologists were excavating a wall from the early days of the Alessandrino neighborhood, dozens of feet above the ancient layers of the city, when they found the head of the statue face down in the wall. The head had been recycled by the medieval builders and plugged into the wall like a regular block of stone. The masons didn’t even attempt to make it more block-like, thankfully, and it’s in very good condition, despite its detachment from its body long ago, its stint as another brick in the wall above ground and below. 

The head bears a resemblance to the Ephesus group of Amazons carved in the 5th century B.C. by the greatest artists of the Classical period (Phidias, Polyclitus, Kresilas) and widely copied for the gardens and homes of the Roman elite. (Here’s one example in the Capitoline.) However, archaeologists believe it’s a representation of Dionysos who was often depicted as an androgynous youth. The figure wears a diadem of ivy leaves adorned with an ivy bloom, a characteristic Dionysian attribute, tying back the long, thick, wavy hair. The mouth is parted, the visage benevolent and unlined. The eye sockets are hollow now, but originally would have held eyes of glass or gemstone. That style of eye is typical of the first two centuries of the empire.

The sculpture has been transported to the Imperial Forums Museum where the remaining soil will be removed and the head conserved before being put on public display.

You can see how it was placed in the wall in this cool video of its discovery.


First Iron Age bark shield found in England

Friday, May 24th, 2019

University of Leicester archaeologists have discovered an Iron Age bark shield, the first of its kind ever found in Europe. It was made sometime between 395 and 255 B.C., the Middle Iron Age.

The shield was found in 2015 during an archaeological survey at the site of the Everards Meadows development in the Soar Valley south of Leicester. It was buried face down in a deep waterlogged pit, which is why the barks and wood it was made out of survived the centuries. The pit was probably a watering hole for livestock before the shield was deposited; the excavation discovered a trackway, ditches and land boundaries indicating the site was likely used in stock rearing by the small farmsteads in the community.

The shield, which measured 670 x 370mm [26.3 x 14.6 inches] in the ground, is unique, the only bark shield every found in Europe. It was carefully constructed with wooden laths to stiffen the structure, a wooden edging rim, and a beautiful woven boss to protect the handle. The outside of the shield was painted and scored in red chequerboard decoration.

Detailed analysis shows that the bark was from either alder, willow, poplar, hazel or spindle tree with the outer layer of bark forming the inside of the shield. The stiffening laths were made of apple, pear, quince or hawthorn whilst the rim was a half-split hazel rod. Analysis to date suggests that the boss was formed from a willow core stitched together with a flat fibre of grass, rush or bast fibre, and the handle was of willow roundwood, flattened at the end and notched, and fixed to the bark with twisted ties. The outer surface of the shield was scored with lines forming a chequerboard pattern, with parts painted with red hematite-based paint.

The shield was severely damaged before being deposited in the watering hole.  Analysis by Dr Rachel Crellin (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester) suggests at least one irregular elliptical hole was likely to have been damage caused by the pointed tip of an iron spear, whilst other groups of parallel incisions may show where edged blades have hit and rebounded. Further research is planned to help understand if this occurred in battle or as an act of ritual destruction.

The discovery of this shield rewrites the history of weaponry in Iron Age Britain. Before now, bark shields had only been found in the southern hemisphere and historians believed they were simply not used in the northern hemisphere. The damage to the Enderby Shield indicates that they were indeed made as weapons of war, and experimental recreations have confirmed that evenly though it was only a tenth of an inch thick and incredibly lightweight, the reinforced bark shield was strong enough to withstand projectile impact.

The recreation of willow and alder bark shields also found that they could be manufactured quickly and easily using materials from a local woodland and a few simple tools. The finished shields varied in shape because of the wood elements shrank and curved as they dried. Built as rectangles, once they were dry they had hourglass shape, a design seen in some metal shields from the period.

It’s not clear why the shield was in the bottom of the watering hole – perhaps it was thrown away because it was broken, or perhaps it was deliberately placed there as a ritual act. Radiocarbon dates for the shield and for other material in the watering hole suggest that more than a decade had passed between the shield’s manufacture and its disposal. The damage to the shield may well hold the answer to this question. 



Jadeite tool found at Maya salt works

Monday, May 20th, 2019

Archaeologists have unearthed a jadeite tool with a rosewood handle at a Maya salt works site in Belize. This is the first time the wooden handle of one of these tools has been found intact, preserved by the waterlogged mangrove peat at the Ek Way Nal site in southern Belize. It dates to the Maya Classic Period (300–900 A.D.) when the Paynes Creek Salt Works, a network of 110 ancient salt works operated in a mere three square mile area.

The jadeite of the gouger and the wood of the handle are very high-quality materials. The stone is translucent green, the most prized color of jadeite which ranges from translucent to opaque. The jadeite’s translucency is caused by the tight microstructure of its grains, which makes it much harder and more durable than the opaque versions of the stone. Its beauty and the high degree of difficulty in working it made translucent jadeite the preferred greenstone of Maya royalty. It is usually found in the tombs of the highest rank, like King Pacal’s tomb at Palenque, and at ceremonial sites where it was used in religious rituals and as diplomatic gifts. Grave goods of jewelry, carved plaques and statuary were important indicators of elite status.

The hardness of the translucent jadeite that made it so desirable for royal adornment also made it desirable as a tool. The handle is Honduras rosewood, a dense, finely grained wood that even today is considered difficult to carve, so it too was a strong, sturdy material ideal for a tool.

An analysis of the stone found that it is 98% jadeite by volume and that its quality and translucent blue-green shade approaches gem grade. That such expensive materials were used to make a utilitarian object like a gouger attests to the importance of salt in the Classic Maya economy, and the deep pockets of the salt workers themselves. They weren’t “working in the salt mines” in the modern sense of the idiom.

“The salt workers were successful entrepreneurs who were able to obtain high-quality tools for their craft through the production and distribution of a basic biological necessity: salt. Salt was in demand for the Maya diet. We have discovered that it was also a storable form of wealth and an important preservative for fish and meat,” said lead researcher and anthropologist Heather McKillop, who is the Thomas & Lillian Landrum Alumni Professor in the LSU Department of Geography & Anthropology.

The tool would not have been used to gouge hard materials like stone or wood. It was found in a salt kitchen, so researchers believe it was probably used in jobs like scraping salt, gutting calabash gourds, or cleaning fish or meat before salting.


Incredibly rare Roman coin found during highway works

Saturday, May 18th, 2019

A Roman coin that is only the second example ever discovered in England has been found during construction work on the A14 highway in Cambridgeshire. The bronze coin features the radiate bust of the usurper emperor Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus on the obverse and winged Victory holding a wreath and palm branch on the reverse. It has been hard worn and the edges are scalloped so it’s difficult to read the inscription, but Laelianus only made two versions of this coin so we know it was minted at Mainz, his imperial seat.

Very little is known about Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus. The Ulpii were an important Spanish family — Trajan was an Ulpius — but there’s no evidence he was related to them. The aureus coin he issued had a depiction of a personified Spain on the reverse, which may have meant to suggest a connection to the famous Ulpii. As a usurper who claimed the imperial throne after rebelling against another usurper (his commanding officer Postumus), he would have a good reason to promote himself as related to the legitimate emperor who expanded the Roman empire to its greatest size, even if said connection was entirely fictional.

Laelianus’ “reign,” and I use the term loosely, lasted for two months in the spring of 269 A.D. and covered a snipped of Gaul and Germania. He commanded two legions and successfully repulsed a Germanic assault with them. In the wake of his victory, he declared himself emperor in Mainz. A couple of months later, his capital was besieged by his former commanding officer and he was killed, either by his own men or by Postumus’.

Because he was such a flash in the pan, his coins are extremely rare and very much sought after by collectors. Only one aureus and two bronze antoniniani are known. This bronze antoninianus was found in a ditch of a Roman farmstead excavated in the A14 expansion project.

Julian Bowsher, numismatist at MOLA Headland Infrastructure, added: “Roman emperors were very keen to mint coins. Laelianus reigned for just two months, which is barely enough time to do so. However, coins were struck in Mainz, Germania.

“The fact that one of these coins ever reached the shores of Britain demonstrates remarkable efficiency, and there’s every chance that Laelianus had been killed by the time this coin arrived in Cambridgeshire.”


Farmer discovers Sarmatian warrior tomb

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

A farmer stumbled on a rare Sarmatian burial while working his land near the village of Nikolskoye in the Astrakhan region of southern Russia this winter. Rustam Mudayev was digging a pit when his bulldozer made an unusual sound. It was the sound of a mechanical digger meeting an ancient bronze pot. He took the vessel to the Astrakhan Museum-Reserve for examination and it was identified as Iron Age artifact.

When the snow melted, a team of archaeologists surveyed the find site. The discovered that the bronze pot had emerged from an ancient burial mound. The mound is noted on topographic maps, labeled “Praying Sands,” but had not been archaeologically excavated before.  Digging into the mound the team discovered the remains of an adult male buried with weapons, rich adornments and the head of his horse. 

He was tall, just under six feet, and elderly.  He had been buried in a closed coffin, his horse’s head in a silver and bronze harness placed on top of it. Inside the coffin archaeologists found a group of gold plaques that are believed to have decorated a pillow on which his head was resting. They also found knives with gold and turquoise decoration, a gold and turquoise belt buckle, a mirror and several pots. A tiny but exquisite gold and turquoise horse head figurine was found between his legs. The objects date to around the 2nd century A.D.

This was an elaborate burial for a nomadic people, an indication of the high status this individual held in his community. The weapons and the horse burial would have been reserved for a warrior and the wealth of the grave goods suggest he was a leader, a chieftain or nobleman.

Initially the mound was dated to the Iron Age (4th century B.C. – 4th century A.D.) based on the artifacts, but additional discoveries point to the mound having been used repeatedly starting in the Bronze Age. The team has been digging for less than two weeks and they’ve found two more burials — a woman buried with a bronze mirror and a whole sacrificed lamb and the skeletal remains of a young man with an egg-shaped skull. Deliberate cranial deformation was a common practice in the region at the time (actually in pretty much every inhabited region on the globe at various times). 

The mound has been looted in the past, but thankfully the looters did a shoddy job of it, only digging up the top Iron Age layer and not even clearing everything out. Archaeologists found small pieces of gold fittings or plaques left behind by the tomb raiders. They haven’t gotten to the central burial yet and excavations will continue for another week in the hopes they will reach the original Bronze Age burial that could date back to the third millennium B.C. Once the project is complete, the artifacts will be recovered, conserved and exhibited at the museum.


Sarsen core returns to Stonehenge after US sojourn

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

A core drilled out of one of Stonehenge’s massive sarsen stones has been returned to its homeland after decades in the US. It wasn’t smuggled out or looted; it was legitimately removed and nobody even remembered it existed other than the person who had it.

In 1958, archaeologists working at Stonehenge endeavored to raise a fallen trilithon. When cracks were found in one of the vertical stones, Basingstoke diamond cutting firm Van Moppes was brought in to drill out three cores so that metal rods could be inserted to reinforce the post and allow it to bear the weight of the lintel.

Roger Phillips was one of the Van Moppes employees who bored three horizontal holes through the stone using an annular drilling machine. The three cores removed were 25mm (approximately one inch) in diameter and one meter, the full thickness of the stone, long. After the metal reinforcements were installed, the openings were plugged with fragments of sarsen stones unearthed in excavations. It was a highly effective intervention and today the repairs are all but invisible.

The cores were considered waste material and there are no known records documenting their fate. As it turns out, Phillips kept one of them. For years he displayed the 108cm (3’6″) long cylinder in a protective acrylic sleeve in his Basingstoke office.  Robert Phillips left Van Moppes in 1976 and moved to the US. He crossed the country, living in Rochester, New York, Chicago, Illinois, Ventura, California and lastly Aventura, Florida, carrying his trusty sarsen core with him on every move.

Last year, at the age of 90, Phillips decided his beloved piece of Stonehenge should go home. He asked his sons Robin and Lewis, both of whom live in England, to return it to English Heritage, and so they did. In a repatriation ceremony at Stonehenge, The Phillipses handed over the cylinder to English Heritage curator Heather Sebire.

The core is an invaluable source of information on the source of the sarsen stones. Modern technology makes it possible to analyze their origin in a way that wasn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye back in 1958.

This recently returned piece of Stonehenge, which looks incongruously pristine next to the weathered stone from where it came, may now help locate the original location of the sarsen stones. Stonehenge’s smaller bluestones were famously brought from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales but the precise origin of the much larger sarsens is unknown. A British Academy and Leverhulme Trust project, led by Professor David Nash of the University of Brighton, is investigating the chemical composition of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge in order to pinpoint their source. The project team have already used a handheld portable spectrometer to investigate the chemistry of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge using x-ray fluorescence, a non-destructive technique. The core presents the team with a unique opportunity to analyse the unweathered interior of a stone. […]

Professor David Nash, Brighton University, said: “Archaeologists and geologists have been debating where the stones used to build Stonehenge came from for years. The bluestones have attracted a lot of attention recently, but in contrast little has been done to look at the sources of the larger sarsen stones. Conventional wisdom suggests that they all came from the relatively nearby Marlborough Downs but initial results from our analysis suggest that in fact the sarsens may come from more than one location.  Our geochemical fingerprinting of the sarsens in situ at Stonehenge, and of the core itself, when compared with samples from areas across southern England will hopefully tell us where the different stones came from.”

English Heritage would love to get their mitts on the other two cores, if they still exist out there. Anybody with any information about the Stonehenge cores should email


Largest 4th c. coin hoard in Britain found in Lincolnshire

Saturday, May 11th, 2019

Metal detector enthusiasts discovered a hoard of Roman copper coins near the village of Rauceby in Lincolnshire in July of 2017. They had searched the area for years with only a few minor finds to show for it. This time when their detectors signaled the presence of metal, when they dug they found a massive quantity of Roman coins.

They alerted the authorities and a full excavation of the site ensued. Lincolnshire County Council archaeologist Adam Daubney and Sam Bromage from the University of Sheffield unearthed the ceramic pot that the coin hoard was buried in and  small separate hoard of 10 coins. All told, more than 3000 copper-alloy  were found. It is the largest coin hoard from the 4th century ever found in Britain.

Dr Daubney commented: “The coins were found in a ceramic pot, which was buried in the centre of a large oval pit – lined with quarried limestone. What we found during the excavation suggests to me that the hoard was not put in the ground in secret, but rather was perhaps a ceremonial or votive offering. The Rauceby hoard is giving us further evidence for so-called ‘ritual’ hoarding in Roman Britain.”

Dr Eleanor Ghey, Curator of Iron Age and Roman Coin Hoards at the British Museum, commented: “At the time of the burial of the hoard around AD 307, the Roman Empire was increasingly decentralised and Britain was once again in the spotlight following the death of the emperor Constantius in York. Roman coins had begun to be minted in London for the first time. As the largest fully recorded find of this date from Britain, it has great importance for the study of this coinage and the archaeology of Lincolnshire.”

The coins were officially declared treasure under the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act by the Lincoln Coroner’s Court on May 9th. The hoard is in the British Museum right now for assessment by the valuation committee. Once fair market value is assessed, local museums will be given first crack at acquiring the hoard by paying the assessed value in compensation to be split 50/50 by the finders and landowner. In this case the value will likely be in the tens of thousands of pounds.


New frescoed room found at Domus Aurea

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

Archaeologists, architects and restorers working on the Domus Aurea have discovered a new room decorated with elegant frescoes. It has been dubbed the Hall of the Sphinx after one of the mythological creatures painted on the walls.

Nero’s megalomaniacally huge palace was so associated with the emperor and his worst impulses — how he used the Great Fire of 64 A.D. as an opportunity for an enormous land grab, his profligacy, his massive ego, his slothfulness — that after his suicide in 68 A.D. the Golden House was destroyed by Vespasian. Forty years after that, the emperor Trajan used the ruins as the foundation for a great public bath complex. He stripped the walls and floors of all remaining valuable materials (marble, mosaics, frescoes) and filled the vast open spaces of the rooms with rubble. Fallen walls were rebuilt in brick.

When the palace remains were rediscovered in the 15th century, nobody knew it was the Domus Aurea. They just thought they’d found caves (“grotte” in Italian), and, amazed by the delicacy and perspective of the frescoes, Renaissance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo lowered themselves in through holes in the ceiling to see the figures. The painting style inspired by the discovery of the palace became known as grotesque.

The tour of the Domus Aurea today, which I’ve done twice because I was so astonished by it the first time I went, includes a riveting virtual reality recreation of what the huge spaces of the palace looked like when the artists dropped in through an oculus to observe with wonder the ancient art on the walls. The Trajanic fill rose dozens of feet up the walls, leaving only the vaults empty. Many of those soaring spaces up to 36 feet high have been excavated since, and invaded with moisture, organic overgrowth and mineral deposits, the frescoes have lost much of the intensity that so inspired the Old Masters of the Renaissance. This find puts us in their shoes for the first time.

The hall was discovered during the installation of scaffolding to support the walls in Room 72. While up high, workers saw an aperture at the top of the north wall that was not visible from below. They looked through the hole, illuminating it with their lights, and saw a space filled with soil and rubble almost reaching its ceiling.

The room is rectangular, topped with a barrel vaulted ceiling. The ceiling and visible tops of the walls are decorated with frescoes in the grotesque style that inspired artists who had no idea they were in Nero’s ancient palace. Against the white background of the vault are panels outlined in ochre and red. The perimeter rectangle is yellow with foliate elements and curvilinear swirls at the four corners.

In center of the panels are figures painted in richly saturated lines: a man armed with a sword, quiver and shield confronting a panther, rampant centaurs, satyrs, fantastical aquatic creatures, garlands, branches covered in green, yellow and red leaves with birds perched on them. On the semi-circular lunette against the wall is an imaginary structure with columns topped by a gold patera (ceremonial dish). Beside it is a winged sphinx on a pedestal.

These types of figures and motifs are found in many other rooms of the Domus Aurea and can be identified as the output of Workshop A which was in operation between 65 and 68 A.D.  The artists from this workshop employed white backgrounds, light architectural designs and small figures to create a spacious, luminous effect even in small poorly-lit rooms. The position of the room in contrast to the overall planning of the Domus indicates that this is one of the older, less known spaces of the palace. They weren’t newly built by Nero, but rather refurbished by him. Originally they were part of a Claudian-era warehouse. Nero had them gussied up and integrated in the Domus.

At first glance, the frescoes appeared to be in good condition, but a more in depth examination found the decoration was obfuscated by layers of salts, carbonation and film of biological organisms. There has also been significant pigment loss and lifting of the plaster from the preparatory layers on the wall. Some sections were almost completely detached from the wall and in imminent danger of collapse.

Conservation was a challenge because of the complex microclimatic conditions of the Domus Aurea, the limited height of the space, the difficulty in accessing it and the almost complete lack of air circulation. Restorers had to wear harnesses and were constantly monitored by support staff in Room 72. They put an air replacement system in place, but even with that the team decided not to use solvents or biocidal products that could be dangerous in such an enclosed space and that could alter the heat and moisture balance of the environment.

Conservators triaged the frescoes and focused on the areas in most urgent need of stabilization. They repaired what they could using materials like grout that have good adhesive power with little fluidity to prevent any infiltration of the interior wall.

There are no plans to excavate the room. After almost 2000 years, that fill Trajan crammed in there is structural.





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