Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Bronze Age tomb groaning with riches found in Greece

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Archaeologists digging near the ancient city of Pylos in the Peloponnese region of southwestern Greece have unearthed a richly laden tomb dating to around 1,500 B.C. Led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, the international team was excavating a previously unexplored field next to the Palace of Nestor. They chose to dig in a place where three stones were visible on the ground, thinking they were the remains of a Bronze Age house. They soon realized those stones were the top of a shaft tomb. After two weeks of digging, archaeologists hit gold, figuratively, that is. Literally they hit bronze, but that was just the beginning.

Inside a shaft tomb about five feet deep, four feet wide and eight feet long was the skeleton of an adult male and an eye-popping collection of grave goods. To the left of his chest was a sword three feet long with an ivory hilt overlaid with gold. Underneath the sword was a dagger with a gold hilt in the same embroidery-like technique found on the long sword. To his right were jewels, among them a hoard of more than 1,000 beads of carnelian, amethyst, gold, agate, jasper and gold, most of them drilled through so they could be strung together. Small fragments of a cross-woven textile suggests some of the beads decorated a burial shroud. Near the beads were four solid gold rings, the most that have ever been discovered in a single burial in Greece, plus six silver cups and an assortment of bronze vessels, some with gold or silver trim.

On his chest were two squashed gold cups and a silver cup with a gold rim. By his neck was a unique gold necklace 30-inches long with a box weave chain and finials in a sacral ivy pattern. At his legs and feet were more bronze weapons, including a sword and spearhead, and thin bronze strips likely to be the remains of a suit of armor on top of his body. (Many of the grave goods were placed on top of his coffin when he was buried. When the wood of the coffin decayed, those goods settled on and around the warrior.

Other assorted finds include: a bronze mirror with an ivory handle, more than 50 seal stones intricately carved with Minoan designs of deities, lions, bulls and bull dancers vaulting over the animal’s horns, carved ivory pieces including a griffon and a lion attacking a griffon and six ivory combs.

Before this find, graves this rich were only found in the archaeological site of Mycenae, one of the great military centers of early Greece after which the period (1600 – 1100 B.C.) of its dominance is named. Pylos was thought to be a bit of a backwater compared to the grand city of 30,000, but the ultra-rich graves of Mycenae were multiple burials. The discovery of the wealthiest single burial in ever found in Greece in Pylos means historians may have to revise their understanding of the town’s ancient importance.

Another archaeological boon from this discovery is that we know all the grave goods belong to this one man. The multiple burials made it difficult for archaeologists to identify which artifacts belonged to which person. One hypothesis was that the grave goods could be divided by gender — men get the weapons, women get the combs and beads — but this discovery shows that a gender division doesn’t work because the man was buried with every kind of artifact under the sun.

There was no name or identifying information in the grave, but the burial is older than the palace of Nestor which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C., so these are not the remains of a Homeric hero.

Explains Stocker, “This latest find is not the grave of the legendary King Nestor, who headed a contingent of Greek forces at Troy in Homer’s Iliad. Nor is it the grave of his father, Neleus. This find may be even more important because the warrior pre-dates the time of Nestor and Neleus by, perhaps, 200 or 300 years. That means he was likely an important figure at a time when this part of Greece was being indelibly shaped by close contact with Crete, Europe’s first advanced civilization.”

Thus, the tomb may have held a powerful warrior or king — or even a trader or a raider — who died at about 30 to 35 years of age but who helped to lay the foundations of the Mycenaean culture that later flourished in the region.

Davis speculates, “Whoever he was, he seems to have been celebrated for his trading or fighting in nearby island of Crete and for his appreciation of the more-sophisticated and delicate are of the Minoan civilization (found on Crete), with which he was buried.”

The team found the tomb in May, but the discovery was kept under wraps until Monday when the Greek Culture Ministry announced it to the world as “the most important prehistoric funerary monument to have come to light on mainland Greece in the last 65 years”

The more than 1,400 artifacts recovered from the grave are now at the Archaeological Museum of Chora where they will be conserved and analyzed. Because so many of the pieces seem to have originated in Minoan Crete, archaeologists are hoping the study of the grave goods will give them a new understanding of the trade networks connecting ancient Crete and Mycenaean Greece.


Raiders of Alaric’s lost tomb

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Anybody who thought that appeal of the witch trial was a waste of state resources better get their Valium dispensers locked and loaded. At a press conference on Wednesday, October 21st, a committee of politicians and scientists announced they’ll be searching for the legendary treasure-filled tomb of Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, under a river flowing through Cosenza, a city in the region of Calabria near the toe of Italy’s boot.

“It’s a real-life Indiana Jones hunt,” said Francesco Sisci, the project coordinator.

“You have a legend of long-lost treasure, even the Nazis – Heinrich Himmler came here in 1937 to try to find the hoard for Hitler. He stayed in a Swabian castle. This is the stuff of Hollywood and Steven Spielberg.

“If there really is 25 tons of gold, it would be worth around one billion euros at today’s prices,” he said.

When the project coordinator invokes Indiana Jones, you know it’s legit. This scheme is the brain child of a committee formed last year by the municipality of Cosenza to develop new cultural and touristic events around the legend of Alaric. The tomb doesn’t actually have to be found, therefore, in order for the search to fulfill its ultimate goal of promoting Consenza’s greatest claim to fame. Which is a good thing, because the odds of finding said tomb are so miniscule they make the Richard III parking lot excavation look like a sure shot.

Alaric, once a leader of a band of Gothic foederati (irregular troops who fought with the Roman army) under Emperor Theodosius I, has gone down in history as the first invader to sack Rome in 800 years, since the Gaul Brennus 387 B.C. Rome wasn’t actually the capital anymore when Alaric took it in 410 A.D., however. It hadn’t been since 286 when Diocletian made Mediolanum (modern-day Milan) the capital of the Western Empire.

Alaric besieged Mediolanum during his first invasion of Italy in 401, spurring the young and feckless Western Roman emperor Honorius to move the capital to Ravenna in 402 because it was surrounded by marshes, well-fortified and had direct access to the Adriatic, ideal should a hasty escape become necessary. His personal safety was his only interest. The new capital was horribly situated to protect Italy from barbarian invaders. It was only through the efforts of Flavius Stilicho, Honorius’ top general and former regent during the emperor’s minority, that Alaric’s army was kept at bay on multiple occasions from 401 until 408 when Honorius had Stilicho arrested and executed, ostensibly for conspiring to overthrow him.

In the first decade of the 5th century, Alaric besieged Rome three times, but he wasn’t just in it for the pillage and loot. He wanted the emperor to appoint him commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army and grant him huge tracts of land in Pannonia. Putting pressure on Rome, which while no longer the capital was still seat of the Senate and the symbolic center of the empire, was a means to those ends. The first siege after Stilicho’s death in late 408, ended with a massive payoff. According to Zosimus’ New History, the Senate gave Alaric 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk robes, 3,000 fleeces dyed scarlet in exchange for him lifting the siege.

One year later Alaric’s forces besieged Rome again after the failure of negotiations with Honorius. This time only the proclamation of a new emperor would do to get Alaric to lift the siege, and so Priscus Attalus was installed as puppet. While Attalus and Alaric had some military successes in Italy, enough to scare Honorius into preparing a flight to Constantinople, they soon hit the wall and Alaric dumped his puppet less than a year after installing him. He tried negotiating with Honorius again, but gave up for good after a sneak attack from Honorius’ Goth ally Sarus when Alaric was waiting to meet the emperor at the appointed time.

On August 24th, 410 A.D., the Visigoths reached the Salarian Gate of Rome. This time there was no siege. Alaric’s army spent three days sacking Rome, but it was quite respectful, as sacks go. They didn’t set it on fire — only a few public buildings were burned down for strategic reasons — and they spared the churches of Saint Peter and Paul. They didn’t indiscriminately kill people either, although they enslaved thousands.

Laden with the treasures of 800 years of Roman history, the Visigoths turned south where Alaric hoped to cross over into Sicily and from there to Africa, the granary of the empire. His fleet destroyed by storms, he never did make it to Sicily. A few months after the sack, Alaric suddenly became ill and died in Consentia. Jordanes describes the aftermath in his 6th century history of the Gothic people Getica:

His people mourned for him with the utmost affection. Then turning from its course the river Busentus near the city of Consentia — for this stream flows with its wholesome waters from the foot of a mountain near that city — they led a band of captives into the midst of its bed to dig out a place for his grave. In the depths of this pit they buried Alaric, together with many treasures, and then turned the waters back into their channel. And that none might ever know the place, they put to death all the diggers.

So. That is what the Cosenza search is up against: a tomb rumored to have been dug underneath a river in a location known only to slaves killed before they could share that knowledge. Past attempts to find the fabled treasure have all involved digging along the riverbank, a blind, clumsy approach that this new effort will eschew in favor of the latest technology.

By matching contemporary accounts by Roman historians with the local geography, the researchers have found five places where they think the treasure may lie. They include a 1.5 mile stretch of river that runs through Cosenza but also caves near the nearby village of Mendicino. [...]

The latest technology will be used to search for rectangle-shaped “anomalies” underground in the hunt for the fabled tomb of Alaric, said Amerigo Giuseppe Rota, the geologist leading the project.

“We think Alaric was buried at least five to six metres underground. But in the last 1,500 years the river bed has risen by about 1.5 metres, so his tomb could be up to eight metres below ground now,” he said.

Sure, why not? It could be. It could also not exist at all. The whole diverted river story could be a legend written 140 years after the events it purports to describe. The idea that there are 25 tons of gold under the Busento River is fanciful at best. The Visigoths would not have buried all of their Roman loot with Alaric. Even if the sources are correct that he was buried with his horse and treasure according to pagan custom (Alaric was an Arian Christian, but he held to some of his people’s traditional religious practices as well), they would have been grave goods, not tons and tons of gold.

Anyway the caper isn’t expected to cost much. The early geophysical surveys were funded by private donors and while there’s talk of the government in Rome chipping in, public funding isn’t likely to materialize anytime soon.


Repair of King Tutankhamun’s beard begins

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

The restoration of the golden funerary mask of King Tutankhamun has begun after last year’s botched attempted to reattach the false beard left it with a thick, ugly layer of visible epoxy glue and scratches on the gold. The mask was removed from public view on the second floor of the Egyptian Museum two weeks ago and moved to a laboratory. A team of German and Egyptian conservators led by Christian Eckmann examined it thoroughly, using a microscope to assess its condition and figuring out how best to approach the removal of the epoxy without damaging the gold.

“We have some uncertainties now, we don’t know how deep the glue went inside the beard, and so we don’t know how long it will take to remove the beard,” [Christian Eckmann] said on the sidelines of a news conference with the antiquities minister, Mamdouh el-Damaty, and Tarek Tawfik, director-general of the still-under-construction Grand Egyptian Museum near the pyramids.

“We try to make all the work by mechanical means … we use wooden sticks which work quite well at the moment, then there is another strategy we could implement, slightly warming up the glue,” he said. “It’s unfortunately epoxy resin which is not soluble.”

The process of removing the beard by scraping away the glue with wooden sticks could take at least a month. Once the thick glue layer has been removed, the team will study how to reattach the beard. The beard has a pin that fits into a slot on the chin, but it’s been loose since Howard Carter discovered it in 1922. A 1941 restoration added a thin layer of adhesive to keep the beard stable. In the seven decades since then, the adhesive weakened, which is likely why the beard fell off when it was jostled last year during routine work on the display’s lighting. A joint scientific committee will decide the best method of reattachment.

There are two components to the restoration project: the detachment/reattachment of the beard, and a comprehensive study of the materials and techniques used to manufacture the mask. While the gold mask of Tutankhamun has been one of the most photographed artifacts in the world since its discovery, it has never been thoroughly documented and studied with modern scientific methods. Having to repair this reprehensible conservation disaster does therefore have something of a silver lining.

The funding for the restoration comes from the German Foreign Ministry which is donating 50,000 euros ($57,000) as part of its Cultural Preservation Program.


Imperial ramp of Domitian opens to public

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

For the first time since it was discovered in 1900, a monumental ramp built by Emperor Domitian in Rome opened to the public on Tuesday, October 20th. Domitian built the ramp in the second half of the 1st century A.D. to connect the Roman Forum, the administrative and political heart of the city, to the imperial palace complex of the Palatine, the city’s center of power. With high walls flanked by storerooms, the imperial ramp went up seven levels with six turns between them and was as much as 35 meters (115 feet) high. Of the seven original ramps levels, four remain, but they are more than sufficient to convey the majesty of the space and the symbolic significance of the steep ascension from popular politics to imperial might. Visitors who walk the ramp will emerge atop the Palatine to a breathtaking view of the Roman Forum that before now regular folks haven’t had the chance to experience.

Also restored is a great hall which in the early Middle Ages was converted into the Oratorio of the Forty Martyrs, dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Built no later than the 8th century, the Oratorio is adjacent to the Byzantine church of Santa Maria Antiqua, famed for its rare frescoes, and signficant portions of the Oratorio’s original Byzantine frescoes have survived as well. They date to the 8th and 9th centuries and depict a procession of saints and possibly St. Anthony of Egypt. The floor is made of repurposed marble fragments in a random jigsaw arrangement. The Oratorio has been accessible to the public in a limited way before, but just on its own. The new restoration has reintegrated it into the ramp, making it the entrance to Domitian’s complex.

The ramp was discovered by architect, engineer and archaeologist Giacomo Boni. Boni was appointed director of excavations of the Roman Forum in 1898 and he dug until works were interrupted by World War I in 1916. The years between 1899 and 1905 were particularly intensive. Boni made major discoveries during this time, among them the Lapis Niger and Vulcanal, the Regia, the Aedes Vestae (shrine of Vesta), an archaic necropolis next to the temple of Antoninus and Faustina and the Byzantine church of Santa Maria Antiqua.

When he unearthed the imperial ramp of Domitian, he set about restoring it almost as soon as he found it, rebuilding the fallen brickwork of the vast vaulted ceilings of the first two levels and clearing the path all the way through to its connecting point with the Clivus Victoriae, a sloping road that went uphill from the Velabro, a former swamp between the Tiber and the Forum, to the top of the Palatine. The section of the ramp linking to the Clivus is still undergoing work, but is scheduled to open to visitors in March.

A temporary exhibition (it ends January 10th, 2016) inside the ramp puts on display a selection of the most important ancient artifacts discovered during the excavation of the Forum. Also on display will be surviving 17th century wall frescos Boni stripped from the church of Santa Maria Liberatrice before demolishing it to expose the more ancient and glamorous Santa Maria Antiqua which had been part of Domitian’s imperial palace complex before being converted to a Christian church in the 6th century. The hall that would be transformed into the Oratorio of the Forty Martyrs, in fact, was just underneath Santa Maria Liberatrice.

This short clip from the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome has a few images of the 1900 excavation and the ramp as it is today.


Bronze Age weapon cache found on Scottish island

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Scotland nature reserve on the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland have discovered a cache of 3,000-year-old broken bronze weapons.

The excavation, directed by the Treasure Trove Unit in conjunction with National Museums Scotland and the RSPB, recovered twelve objects from at least seven swords and spears.

Jill Harden, RSPB Scotland Reserves Archaeologist, said: “This is the first discovery of this size from Argyll for many years. The items were recovered from what had once been a freshwater loch. It seems that they had been purposely broken and cast into the waters as part of a ceremony, most likely as offerings or gifts to the gods or goddesses of the time. It is recorded that bronze swords were found on Coll in the 19th century during drainage works, but their whereabouts today are unknown.”

Trevor Cowie, of National Museums Scotland’s Department of Scottish History & Archaeology, said: “While a fair number of objects from this period have been discovered in the west of Scotland in the past, we generally know very little about the precise places where they were found. Archaeological techniques have developed dramatically since those 19th century discoveries were made, so we have a great opportunity here to resolve many unanswered questions about life on Coll some 3,000 years ago.”

The weapons were on display briefly at the Isle of Coll’s An Cridhe community centre on Thursday and Friday of last week, but have been allocated to the Kilmartin Museum in Argyll for conservation where they will be stabilized and made ready for permanent exhibition to the public.

Jill Harden added: “It is expected that a consortium of local interests, universities and museums will come together to reveal the full history of these objects in time. However, their story is much broader than that of the items themselves. We should be able to reveal what Coll’s landscape was like in the past, how much it has altered over time, and whether there were contemporary environmental stresses that meant people resorted to making offerings to the gods in the hope of change.”

That’s why the RSPB Scotland is involved in archaeological excavations of its lands in the first place, to increase understanding of the wider context and history of the environment.

The RSPB Scotland manages 1,075 hectares of mire, dunes, bog, machair and unimproved grassland on the Isle of Coll. This richly biodiverse ecosystem is home to rare birds including the skylark, twite, barnacle geese, Greenland white-fronted geese and most significantly the rare corncrake, a ground-dwelling bird once common in the UK which has been devastated by mechanical mowing of its tall grass breeding grounds. Working with local farmers, the RSPB Scotland has successfully increased the corncrake population in the Coll preserve just by making a few changes to farming practices like mowing the hay in August instead of July. Since the reserve was acquired in 1991, its corncrake population has more than quadrupled, although it’s still tiny at just 66 calling males.


Florida’s only prehistoric saltwater canoe goes on display

Sunday, October 18th, 2015

A prehistoric dugout canoe discovered in 2001 on Weedon Island in Tampa Bay, Pinellas County, Florida, has gone on display after 14 years of conscientiousness, dedication and hard work. Ken Pachulski and Harry Koran found a piece of the wood sticking out of the mangrove peat on the shore of the Weedon Island Preserve. Once they realized it was likely part of a boat, they did something you very rarely encounter in this kind of story: they reburied the exposed section and left it alone.

Two years later, the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center opened. Figuring the new center would have the resources and know-how to deal with the artifact, Pachulski and Koran alerted the center’s manager Phyllis Kolianos to their discovery, showing her pictures and video they had shot of the canoe. Kolianos worked with county, state, tribal and federal authorities for eight years to secure the necessary permits for a full excavation.

Meanwhile, the center did everything they could to document and monitor the canoe in situ. A test dig was done to recover some samples to date and identify the wood. The wood was confirmed to be pine, the predominant local timber after which the county is named. Radiocarbon dating found the canoe was built between 690 and 1010 A.D.

In 2011, the comprehensive excavation began. Archaeologists and volunteers unearthed the full surviving length of the canoe, an impressive 40 feet of the estimated 45-foot original length. That makes it the longest prehistoric canoe ever found in Florida. It has a raised bow, an indication that the canoe was used to navigate open water, not just inland rivers and lakes. That gives it another unique claim to fame: it is the only saltwater canoe ever found in Florida. Historians know canoes were used to navigate the coastal areas, but unlike those used on inland bodies of water which are found in still, peaty oxygen-free environments, boats buried in salt water with the tidal currents and ever-shifting sands of the Gulf Coast don’t survive. The mangroves of Weedon Island saved this one canoe for posterity.

There are holes in the side of the canoe and archaeologists found a pine pole from the same period underneath of it. These features may be an indication that the canoe was connected to a twin to make a catamaran which could navigate the open water over long distances. The pole may have had other uses, like as a punting paddle or a docking tool. Evidence inside the canoe shows that it was made with a combination of two techniques: slow-burning coals were used to soften the log’s insides which were then scraped out with stone and shell tools.

The canoe and pole date to the Weeden Island II Period (700 A.D. – 1200 A.D.) of the Weeden Island Culture, a descendant of the Manasota Culture which first settled Florida’s central Gulf coast about 2,500 years ago. Most of what we know about the Weeden Island Culture comes from pottery discovered in burial mounds, village sites and midden piles. This is the only dugout canoe ever discovered from the culture and as such expands our understanding of a little-known people.

In order to remove the canoe, it was cut into 10-foot sections. The pieces were then placed in a tank of polyethylene glycol (PEG) so that the water could be gradually extracted and replaced with the waxy substance. PEG doesn’t dry out like water does, so it will keep the wood supple and free from cracking or shrinking.

“We never wanted the canoe to leave Pinellas County,” said Brent Weisman, a retired University of South Florida archaeology professor and head of the Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research and Education. “That was one of our goals. We didn’t want to send it to Tallahassee or Washington or somewhere else; we wanted it to always stay here. So we built the tank ourselves.”

The canoe stayed in its bath for three years and was allowed to dry for another year before it was ready for display. The four sections have now been reassembled and exhibited in a custom display case at the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.


Iron Age village, sacrifices found in Denmark bog

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

An excavation in Skødstrup, a suburb of Aarhus on the Jutland peninsula of central Denmark, has unearthed the remains of an entire Iron Age community dating to around the birth of Christ. Iron Age burials and sacrifices have been discovered before in the Skødstrup area. Just 500 feet away from the current excavation is a bog where sacrifices and offerings ranging from weapons to a baker’s dozen of dog remains have been found since digs began in the 19th century. Archaeologists were therefore optimistic that this excavation would reveal rich finds, but the depth and breadth of the discoveries surprised even them.

A previous excavation of the site found a burial ground. This season the team found the remains of a large Iron Age village with a cobblestone road in excellent condition and well-preserved floors of homes. In a low-lying area south of the village, archaeologists found human and animal bog sacrifices. The Skødstrup bogs were harvested for peat fuel by early Iron Age peoples. Their descendants a few hundreds of years later used the harvested spots for ritual purposes, placing the bodies of sacrificed humans and animals inside the peat cuts.

Archaeologists so far this season have unearthed the skeletal remains of eight dogs and one human. The dog skeletons were found next to three tethering stakes. The human bones were found heaped next to two stakes, one of them sharpened. The skeletal remains were not complete but they were sufficient to identify the individual as a young woman in her twenties when she died. Most of the skull is missing — the jaw was all that could be found of the head — which suggests it may have been deliberately separated from the body perhaps for ritual purposes.

The tethering stakes of are particular interest. Archaeologists believe they may reveal a previously unknown aspect of Iron Age sacrificial rituals.

“At Skødstrup, we have the whole spectrum of an Iron Age community: A well-structured village with an associated burial ground and sacrificial bogs. It gives us a unique insight into the life of Iron Age people in war and in peace, and not least a glimpse into their religious universe,” [excavation director Per] Mandrup said.

The remains of the woman have been transported to Moesgaard Museum for further study in laboratory conditions.


NOVA’s version of the round ark documentary

Friday, October 9th, 2015

The documentary on the reconstruction of the Atra-Hasis ark that aired on Channel 4 in the UK and NatGeo is now on PBS. It’s an episode of the long-running NOVA series entitled Secrets of Noah’s Ark.

(I need to just take a moment to express how I have had it, OFFICIALLY, with purported documentaries entitled “The Secrets of” or “The Mystery of” whatever historical person, place or thing. Someday I would like see a realistic title like “Things We Pretty Much Know about …” and “A Thoroughly Researched and Well Documented Exploration of …” I’m annoyed that a program like NOVA resort to that kind of cliché.)

There are some differences in the programs. The plot is the same — Dr. Irving Finkel and the Atra-Hasis tablet in the British Museum to the attempted ancient boat reconstruction in India — and most of the interview segments are the same with a few additional talking heads of the American persuasion. The narration is different. The British original is gone in favor of a deep-voiced American and the narrated segments have been rewritten. There are some slight changes in thematic emphasis and editing order, but nothing major.

For those of you who weren’t able to see the original, check your local PBS station to see when this NOVA episode re-airs or check On Demand. You can always watch the episode on the PBS website. If you’ve already seen the Channel 4 version, you might enjoy comparing the two.


Another hoard whose owner’s name is known

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Last month’s discovery of a hoard with a name scratched in the pot in Bulgaria was a first for me, but that’s just because I didn’t know about the hoard of Republican Roman silver denarii discovered in the 1960s in the archaeological site of Cosa, near modern-day Ansedonia in southern Tuscany.

Cosa was a Latin colonia founded in 273 B.C. on a hill overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a small town of about 13 hectares enclosed by a wall built out of massive polygonal limestone blocks between 273 and 264 B.C. The wall was studded with 18 square towers and three gates which opened onto the main streets of the city. Cosa was designed on an octagonal grid system modified to accommodate the rollercoaster topography of the town: two peaks with a valley between. An arx (citadel) was built on the highest peak inside the walls. This was the religious zone whose most ancient temple was the Auguraculum where auspices were taken. Two other temples were built in the 3rd and 2nd centuries, dedicated to Jupiter and Mater Matuta. The temple of Jupiter was replaced in the second quarter of the 2nd century with the Capitolium, a temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva) modeled after the one in Rome.

From the Capitolium a broad street leads straight to the civic center of the town, a long rectangular piazza accessed by a monumental arch built around 170 B.C. and flanked on three sides by porticoes and surrounded by water channels. This is where you find Cosa’s main public buildings: the forum, the Comitium Curiae where the popular assembly met to vote, pass laws and hold court, the carcer or public prison, the Forum Piscarium where cisterns were built to hold fish for the city’s market. From 197 to 150 B.C., the forum saw a burst of development with the addition of eight commercial atria with shopfronts opening on the piazza, central pool and side rooms. A colonnaded basilica for judiciary use was also built during this period, as was a small temple possibly dedicated to Concordia.

The northwest sector of the city was the residential neighborhood. In the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., most of the houses were a standard size — one block each — with living space on a second storey and modest garden space behind, both floors surrounding a central atrium. About 20 of the 248 private homes were double the size. They were reserved for the decurions, the city senators. In the early 1st century A.D., larger, more luxurious homes were built next to the forum. They are characterized by fine mosaic floors and frescoed walls and an extensive garden. The house of Quintus Fulvius is one of these luxury homes.

Cosa was sacked around 70 B.C., possibly by Tyrrhenian pirates like the ones turned into dolphins by Dionysus when they tried to kidnap him. The town was rebuilt under Augustus Caesar and was occupied at least until the 3rd century. By the early 5th century, it was in ruins. Rutilius Claudius Namatianus, a poet of the late imperial era, mentioned it in the elegiac poem De Reditu Suo documenting his sea voyage home to Gaul from Rome in 416 A.D.:

Then we descry, all unguarded now, desolate Cosa’s ancient ruins and unsightly walls. ‘Tis with a qualm that I adduce mid serious things the comic reason for its downfall; but I am loath to suppress a laugh. The story runs that once upon a time the townsfolk were forced to migrate and left their homes behind because rats infested them! I’d sooner believe in losses suffered by the Pygmies’ infantry and in cranes leagued solemnly to fight their wars.

There is archaeological evidence — pottery, post-imperial construction — of a very reduced human presence in Cosa even after the urban legendary plague of rats, but even that stops by the 7th century at the latest.

The American Academy in Rome began excavating the ruins in 1948, reaching the larger homes in the mid-1960s. The domus had been partially reconstructed in the 1st century B.C. and two pottery fragments from that period were found with “Q. FVL.” inscribed on them, leading archaeologists to hypothesize that the owner of the pottery and the house it was found in was one Quintus Fulvius. The house became known as the House of the Treasure because the excavation unearthed a pot filled with 2,004 silver denarii from the Roman Republic buried in the pantry next to the kitchen.

The oldest coins in the hoard date to the end of the 2nd century B.C., but most of them date to the first third of the 1st century B.C. with the newest ones from 74-72 B.C. They’re in exceptional condition, almost uncirculated, so they must have been buried soon after they were struck. That suggests they went into the ground around 70 B.C., a key date for the town of Cosa. It seems Quintus was stashing his savings to keep them out of pirate hands before fleeing the city, only he never returned to dig them back up.

The amount of money was significant, but still relatively small potatoes compared to the vast sums that passed through the hands of Rome’s richest citizens. Cornelius Nepos reports that the wealthy but frugal Roman banker Titus Pomponius Atticus (110 – 32 B.C.), a close friend of Cicero’s, spent 187.5 denarii a day to keep his household running. A Roman legionary in the late Republic made 120 denarii. A family of four would spend 90 denarii a year on food. A hundred years later in Pompeii just before the eruption a slave cost 625 denarii and a kilo of bread cost 1/8 of a denarius. Savings clearly went a lot further in Cosa than in the big city.

The American Academy in Rome collaborated with the Superintendency for Archaeological Heritage of Tuscany to build an archaeological museum on the site in 1981. The Archaeological Museum of Cosa exhibits the most significant finds excavated from the public buildings, private homes, the port and the necropolis outside the city walls, but until September 20th of this year, the coin hoard was never put on display. It’s a security issue. This handsome masonry structure that could pass for a domus if you squint at it suits its ancient setting very well, but there’s no budget here for impenetrable glass cases, high tech security systems and 24 hour guards. Quintus’ kept his money safe for 2,000 years by burying it in the pantry; the museum is not about to break that streak and hand over his treasure to modern pirates. It does plan to create replicas, however, that will be exhibited alongside the model of Quintus’ home just like the real coins were last month.

Excavations of the site picked up again in 2013 after a long hiatus, and this time digitization is a priority. An international archaeological team is not only documenting the dig and blogging about it with infectious enthusiasm, but they’ve also photographed the entire museum collection and laser scanned a selection of artifacts to create 3D virtual models of them. They’ve also created an ambitious 3D virtual site tour so that people from all over the world can be super jealous of their fascinating work in paradisiacal surroundings.


Michigan soybean farmer digs up mammoth bones

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015

Soybean farmer Jim Bristle was digging in a field in Lima Township, 10 miles southwest of Ann Arbor, Michigan, when he came across what he thought was an old bent fencepost. It was not a fencepost. It was a mammoth bone. When he realized it was a bone very much larger than any cow’s, Bristle contacted the University of Michigan on Tuesday, September 29th. Wednesday evening, Professor Dan Fisher, director of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology, inspected the bone and the pit where it found. By Thursday morning he had discovered teeth that identified the bones as belonging to a mammoth that roamed the vegetation rich tundra of Michigan between 15,000 and 11,700 years ago.

That same day Fisher was able to assemble a team of U-M graduate students with lightning speed, plus volunteers like excavator Jamie Bollinger who brought his own heavy lifting machinery to aid in the endeavor. They dug from 9:00 AM until sunset and were able to recover 20% of the mammoth’s bones: a dramatic skull with two large tusks still attached, the jaw, more teeth, the pelvis, parts of both shoulder blades, one kneecap and multiple ribs and vertebrae. The skull and tusks (which had zip ties all along their length to keep the fragile ivory from breaking off in shards) were raised in one piece and loaded onto a flatbed truck for transportation to the University of Michigan with the rest of the bones.

The team also found a small stone flake (a lithic) next to one of the tusks and three basketball-sized boulders in the pit next to the skull. Fisher thinks the mammoth was killed by humans and then stored in a pond that was once on the site, the pre-historic version of refrigeration. The three boulders were used to weight down the carcass. The lithic was broken off a sharp flint knife used to butcher the animal. Fisher has seen the pond preservation method in other prehistoric sites in the region. Only examination of the cleaned bones can confirm or deny this hypothesis. If the mammoth was butchered by people, there will be tell-tale cut marks on the bone.

Preliminary examinations indicate the animal was an adult male around 40 to 50 years old that stood about 10 feet high at the shoulders. It appears to be a hybrid of a woolly mammoth and a Columbian mammoth, a very rare find. According to Fisher, skeletal remains of about 300 mastodons and 30 mammoths have been unearthed in Michigan, but only 10 of the mammoths were as complete as this one. He suspects there are more bones to found down there too. Alas, they won’t be coming up anytime soon because Bristle only allowed the one day of excavation before refilling the pit. He was only digging in the first place to make way for the lift station of a new natural gas line and the discovery has not altered his plans.

Professor Fisher hopes Jim Bristle will donate the bones to the institution.

“It’s really the landowner’s call now,” [Fisher] said, explaining that Bristle now owns the bones. Normally, Fisher explained, the university wouldn’t have put resources into excavating remains without some reassurance that they’d be donated for research. But because these were under such a time crunch, Fisher and his colleagues decided to swoop in. He said on Friday that Bristle has yet to give a verdict on the fate of the bones.

“To really make conclusions about these bones and what they mean, we have to make the evidence available for other scientists to study, too,” Fisher said. “And we can’t do that without long-term access to the material.”





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