Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Head of Aurelian found in Bulgaria

Monday, September 3rd, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed a marbleized limestone head thought to be of the Emperor Aurelian in the ancient Roman city of Ulpia Oescus near the village of Gigen in northern Bulgaria. The statue head dates to the 3rd century A.D. and shows the signs of having been used in construction in late antiquity or the early Middle Ages. The ears were damaged in the attempt to use a head as a building block, but a round, bumpy head does not make a good brick, ears or no ears, so it was dumped in a pit for archaeologists to find centuries later.

“The hairstyle, the depicting of the chin, the way the eyes are depicted all speak of the fact that this statue is from the 3rd century AD, the period of the so called barracks emperors, or soldier emperors in the Roman Empire (235 – 284 AD),” [lead archaeologist Gergana] Kabakchieva explains, as cited by Bulgaria on Air TV.

“Based on the size of the head, we can assume that the statue it came from was slightly smaller than life-size, probably about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall,” she adds.

“This statue was the work of a sculptor from a local atelier in Ulpia Oescus. From Oescus, we have data about the earliest [Ancient Roman] sculptor’s workshop (atelier) in today’s Bulgaria. It dates back to the reign of Roman Emperor Nero (r. 54 – 68 AD), that is, the middle of the 1st century AD,” the lead archaeologist elaborates.

Oescus began in 9 A.d. as a permanent fortified military encampment during the reign of Augustus. Legion were stationed there until 102 A.D. when they were moved at the end of the Dacian War. A civilian settlement of veterans was built on the site and granted the status of colonia by the emperor Trajan, one of only three coloniae in modern-day Bulgaria. The emperor’s middle name, Ulpius, was integrated into the new name of the town.

Located in the most fertile area of the Danube valley on the mouth of the Iskar river at the intersection of several Roman roads, Ulpia Oescus became one of the most important cities in the province of Moesia Inferior. It was a center of trade, religious worship and the arts. The city had one of the largest sculpture workshops in the province. The only colossal Roman statue ever found in Bulgaria was made there.

A clear indication of how important Ulpia Oescus was is that Constantines’s Bridge was built there. The bridge was the largest on the Danube, a mile and half long, 19 feet wide, and the largest river bridge in the empire. Constantine himself attended its opening.

The excavation also unearthed a previously unknown section of the palace Constantine stayed in for the ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 9th, 328 A.D. It’s a marble colonnade on the western side of the main residence of the city. Constantine may have walked through that very colonnade when entering the building.

The bridge didn’t last long. It was destroyed in 355 A.D. during a barbarian invasion. The city was destroyed by the Huns under Atilla in 411. They later tried to rebuild the city as a settlement named Hunion, but it didn’t take. The invasion of the Avars in the late 6th century ended all attempts to rebuild any part of the city. In the 10th century a village from the First Bulgarian Empire was built over the ruins. It was abandoned in the 14th century.

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Roof of Mamertine prison church collapses

Friday, August 31st, 2018

The roof of the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami (Saint Joseph of the Carpenters) collapsed on Thursday afternoon, reducing to rubble one of the most beautiful original parts of the church: the wooden coffered ceiling built in the 1600s. It was the central vault which weakened and took the roof down.

San Giuseppe was built by the guild of carpenters starting in 1597. It was completed in 1663. The facade and apse were redone in an extensive 1886 renovation. Today the church suffers from structural issues (to state the obvious) and is mostly closed to the public during regular hours.

The church was built over another church, San Pietro in Carcere, which in turn was built over (and named after) the Mamertine Prison. Known in antiquity as the Tullianum, it is one of Rome’s most ancient prisons. Legend has it that it was built by the fourth king of Rome, Ancus Marcius, in the 7th century B.C.; its factual history can be traced back to the later Republican era when a variety of rebels, pretenders, usurpers and individuals deemed enemies of the Senate and the People of Rome were imprisoned there. Gallic leader Vercingetorix withered away to nothing in the Tullianum before being executed at Julius Caesar’s triumph. Jugurtha, King of Numidia, starved to death in that dank hole. Both Saint Peter and Saint Paul did bids there before their martyrdoms.

Located steps from the Capitoline overlooking some of Rome’s most iconic ancient marvels, the church makes an evocative setting for photographs and is an extremely popular wedding venue today, structural problems notwithstanding. Two were scheduled for this weekend, in fact. The timing of the roof collapse is therefore as fortunate as a tragedy can be. Only the priest was on site at the time, and he was taking siesta in his quarters so wasn’t in the church itself.

First responders arrived immediately after the collapse, alerted by the enormous boom and the column of smoke. Staff and visitors to the Mamertine were briskly removed and there were no injuries. The firefighters’ preliminary estimates are that three quarters of the roof came down in the collapse and they have a crane up right now taking down the remnants that are in imminent danger of falling. Basically, by the time the situation is stabilized, there isn’t going to be a roof to speak of.

The damage to the interior of the church is impossible to assess right now. It’s engulfed in massive broken beams and debris. No damage to San Pietro in Carcere or to the ancient Mamertine underground is known, but there has been a report of damage to a chapel adjacent to the prison.

Here’s an aerial view of the giant hole in the church roof:

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Intact Minoan tomb found on Crete

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

The pit that opened up under the truck. Photo courtesy the Lassithi Ephorate of Antiquities.When an olive farmer in the village of Kentri near Ierapetra, southeast Crete, parked his truck in the shade of one his olive trees, the ground, oversaturated by a leaky irrigation pipe, retreated under its tires. Don’t worry. No harm came to the truck. A four-foot pit opened up underneath it is all, and when the farmer peered inside, he realized he and his truck had just made an archaeological discovery.

He alerted the Lassithi Ephorate of Antiquities, the local heritage ministry, and they dispatched a team to do an emergency archaeological excavation of the pit. More than eight feet under the surface, archaeologists found an ancient chamber tomb entirely intact and undamaged by looters or faulty irrigation. It had been dug out of the soft limestone. Access to the chamber was provided by a vertical tunnel that was then sealed with clay masonry.

The tomb is 13 feet long with a vaulted ceiling and is divided into three carved niches each with its own funerary arrangement. In the southernmost area was a large covered larnax, a chest used as a coffin in the Minoan and Greek Bronze Age. When archaeologists lifted the cover, the saw the articulated skeleton of an adult.

In the second niche just in front of that larnax were a group of pottery vessels: 14 small ritual amphorae and a large krater (used to mix water and wine). The third niche in the northernmost area of the tomb held another larnaca. This one was broken and had no cover. Skeletal remains were found inside of it, but the skeleton was eroded after having been exposed. In front of the coffin were another 8 vases, six of them ritual amphorae.

All of the ceramics are intact and in good condition. Enough so that experts were able to date to the tomb based on the ceramic typology. It dates from 1400 to 1200 BC, the Late Minoan IIIA-B period.

“The positive thing is that they were not emptied by thieves and this will help archaeologists get as much information as possible. This is a great day for Ierapetra. When you see that in a 4 meter hole there are such important antiquities you feel awe,” Argyris Pantazis, deputy mayor of Local Communities, Agrarian and Tourism of Ierapetra, told cretapost.

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Perfectly preserved Ice Age foal found in Siberia

Monday, August 27th, 2018

The remains of an eerily intact foal has been discovered in the melting permafrost of Siberia. Preserved in the ice for tens of thousands of years, the baby horse was found by paleontologists from Yakutian North-Eastern Federal University in the Batagaika crater in Yakutia, Russia. Scientists identified the foal as a Lena Horse, a species that inhabited the area 30,000-40,000 years ago and has no genetic link to the freaking adorable wild horses that roam Yakutia today.

The little fella was two months old when he died. There is no physical evidence on his body of what caused his premature death. As a matter of fact, there are no blemishes of any kind, no decay, no damage from scavengers, no tissue loss, not even hair loss. Its ears, tail, nostrils and nostril hairs are untouched by the passage of 40,000 years.

Researchers at the North-Eastern Federal University were able to collect a wealth of samples from this perfectly intact horse. They took hair, tissue and fluid samples from the foal and detailed measurements. The foal is 39 inches high at the withers. The research team also took samples of the soil covering the find site.

“We’ll study content of its bowel to understand the foal’s diet. The autopsy will be carried later”, said [head of Yakutia Mammoth museum Semyon] Grigoryev.

Deputy Head of the North-Eastern Federal University Grigory Savvinov said the foal must have fallen into a natural trap.

In this trap scenario, the foal would have fallen into water and drowned. The water would then have quickly frozen over, preserving the benighted creature in perfect condition.

Here’s a short video of the research team examining the foal. The closeup of a cut in the skin where a sample of tissue was removed at the 1:29 mark is something else.

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Mask of Palak found in Palenque

Sunday, August 26th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered a stucco mask believed to depict Maya ruler Pakal the Great at the ancient site of Palenque in southern Mexico. It is a human visage, not a fantastical creature or deity. The face are those of an older man and there are no previously known images of Pakal as a senior, the features — in particular his prominent mouth — do map to depictions of the Lord of Palenque like his glorious jade mosaic funerary mask now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The apparent advanced age of the face in in the mask is itself evidence in favor of it being Pakal. Pakal ascended the throne in 603 A.D. at the age of 12 and reigned until his death 68 years later. His is the longest known reign in the Western hemisphere and the 30th longest in the world. Under his stable rule, the city-state of Palenque reached its political, military, cultural and architectural zenith.

Experts from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) discovered the mask during restoration work in House E of Palenque’s Palace complex. Work began in January to contain and restore damage caused by weather and wildlife in Houses A, B, C, D and E. At House E, the team was addressing the accumulation of water in the east courtyard which during the rainy season filtered into the building and caused persistent moisture problems. To seek out the source of the moisture infiltration, archaeologists dug under the exterior surface, a level equivalent to the bay of the building where the water was seeping in and damaging the stucco, wall paintings and characteristic ornamentation.

They unearthed the remains of what is believed to have been a pond. Just behind it is where the mask was discovered. Accompanying the mask were a large number of ritual offerings including ceramic figurines, vessels, jadeite pieces, napped flint, nacre shell, obsidian, cinnabar, pyrite, two pearls and a plethora of animal bones from fish, turtles, lizards, crabs, birds and snails. The offerings symbolize water and fertility. Many of these were imported luxury items, an indication of the high status of the individual represented and of the general prosperity of Palenque society.

“The offerings are usually presented when there is an end of a period, an architectural renovation or the construction of a new building. In this case, it looks like it was a renovation,” said González.

Elsewhere, [in House C] the researchers identified a nose-ring made of bone that although it does not belong to Pakal does coincide with its Late Classic period [(684-720 A.D.)].

“I do not know a naringuera of this type neither in Mayan area, nor in Mesoamérica; it’s unique,” said González.

The conservation of House E is going forward now with the construction of a new water drain that should alleviate the problem of moisture retention. The cleaning of the walls, which have seen significant microorganism growth as a result of the water problem, continues. The building is famed for its murals, considering the finest examples in Palenque, so restorers are focusing on removing microorganisms and concretions to conserve and protect the important murals.

Palenque is one of Mexico’s most popular archaeological sites. It gets 1,300,000 visitors a year, and that number is increasing.

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Mummification 1,500 years older than previously thought

Saturday, August 25th, 2018

Egypt’s hot, dry desert climate preserved dead bodies long before the advent of artificial mummification. It was long believed that predynastic mummies curled in their characteristic fetal position, were all the product of natural causes, desiccated by the hot sands in which they were buried. A new study has found that a predynastic mummy of the Naqada I (3900-3700 B.C.) period in the collection of Turin’s Museo Egizio was enbalmed, not naturally mummified. That makes him the earliest known example of Egyptian mummification, embalmed 1,500 years before the time when the practice was previously believed to have begun in Egypt.

The mummy, affectionately known as Fred, was acquired in 1901 by renown Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli who a few years later would go on to discover the tomb of Queen Nefertari at Deir el-Medina. It’s not certain where it came from; the most likely candidate is Gebelein. Schiaparelli was the director of the Museo Egizio for decades and the mummy has been in the museum’s collection since its acquisition. It has never been conserved or treated with modern materials, nor has it been subjected to scientific testing. That’s incredibly rare with mummies of any kind — archaeologists, amateurs, collectors used to tear into them with unfortunate gusto back in the day — and predynastic mummies are already far rarer than pharaonic ones.

It was this unusual lack of interventions which made the Turin mummy a unique opportunity for researchers to examine for evidence of deliberate mummification techniques. The team had already spent years studying impeccably-provenanced linen wrappings found in early Egyptian pit graves. Examination under a microscope revealed the presence of a toffee-like substance that subsequent chemical tests identified as pine resin, plant gum, a natural petroleum and fat. These same materials were used 3,000 years later at the peak period of Pharaonic mummification.

Those results were exciting, but they were not entirely convincing because the linens were not attached to any mummies. They were recovered on their own, and while the dating was solid and the discovery recognized by scholars as authentic, the materials could not be conclusively linked to a mummified individual and therefore could not be said to be an example of pre-pharaonic mummification practices. Fred, on the other hand, was the ideal mute witness.

The researchers sampled linen fragments from the mummy’s torso and right wrist, as well as from a woven basket that had been buried alongside the remains. Plant oils and animal fats permeated the ancient fabric, and the scientists pieced together an embalming “recipe” from the compounds that they found, which included sugar or gum, conifer resin, aromatic plant extracts, and antibacterial agents. These ingredients were in similar proportions to those found in balms used during the dynastic period, according to the study.

The Turin mummy is so old that it even predates written language (the earliest known evidence of writing dates to about 3400 B.C.). So, it’s likely that the embalming instructions were preserved verbally “and passed down through generations,” [study author Jana Jones, a research fellow with the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney] said at the briefing.

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Fisherman finds Pictish symbol stone in river

Friday, August 24th, 2018

A rare stone carved with Pictish symbols has been discovered in the River Don in Dyce, Aberdeen, thanks to an extended period of unseasonable heat and a keen-eyed local fisherman. The hot, dry weather this summer dropped the water level of the Don to the lowest it has been in decades, exposing the stone on the bank of the river. A fisherman spotted it and reported the find to Aberdeen University. Archaeologists examined the stone and identified it as a Class I Pictish symbol stone, an unworked stone dating to 6th to 8th century A.D. with multiple symbols carved into the surface, among them a triple disc with cross bar, a mirror, and a notched rectangle with two internal spirals.

Gordon Noble, Head of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, is currently leading a major research project into the early medieval Kingdoms of northern Scotland and Ireland. He said:

“Although there is a corpus of more than 200 of these stones across Scotland, each one is unique and this is a fantastic example which enables us to fill some of the gaps in the record and helps us to trace the development of literacy in north-east Scotland. As such, it is a very significant find.”

With the water levels expected to rise again soon, the clock was ticking on recovering the stone for further study, conservation and display. Experts from Historic Environment Scotland (HES), the Aberdeenshire Council and University of Aberdeen worked with contractors AOC Archaeology and a specialist lifting firm to raise the heavy stone out of the river. The logistical challenge was significant because the weight of the symbol stone required a crane to lift it safely, but the crane would have to be perched on the riverbank which is less than ideal a platform for heavy machinery. A mobile crane did the trick, however, and the ancient stone was successfully pulled form the Don without suffering any damage.

The stone has been transported to Edinburgh for the time being. Its final disposition has yet ot be determined.

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Largest, earliest cemetery in east Africa found

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the largest and earliest cemetery in east Africa built 5,000 years ago by herders around Lake Turkana, Kenya. Researchers from Stony Brook University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History excavated the site and discovered a dense grouping of interrals in a central cavity with scattered associated burials around it.

The Lothagam North Pillar Site, constructed and in active use between 5,000 and 4,300 years ago, consists of a massive platform 100 feet in diameter with a large funerary cavity in which the dead were buried over time. When the cavity was full, burials ceased and it was capped with stones. Megalith pillars were then placed on top of the cap and additional stone circles and cairns were added around the site.

The central cavity held as estimated 580 individuals, men, women, children, seniors. All of the burials regardless of sex, gender or age included grave goods and none of them were given more or more valuable objects. A wide variety of stones and minerals carved into more than 300 beads of many different forms were unearthed in the graves. Fashioning these handsome ornaments would have taken a lot of time, creativity and dedication, attesting that the people of the Lothagam North Pillar Site placed importance on aesthetics, individual style and adornment.

The grave goods are equally distributed over the burial ground, not concentrated in any area or areas, nor were any individuals interred in a manner meant to single them out for special attention and honor. They were tightly packed in the cavity. This indicates the pastoralists who built and used the monumental cemetery did not have a strong hierarchies in their society.

That is a highly significant find from a social history perspective because it contradicts the widespread notion that the construction of large public monuments and buildings was a function of stratified hierarchical societies, that a concentration of wealth and power and the desire to show them off were requirements for projects of this magnitude in early civilizations. The herders of Lake Turkana had an egalitarian society for hundreds of years.

“This discovery challenges earlier ideas about monumentality,” explains Elizabeth Sawchuk of Stony Brook University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “Absent other evidence, Lothagam North provides an example of monumentality that is not demonstrably linked to the emergence of hierarchy, forcing us to consider other narratives of social change.”

The discovery is consistent with similar examples elsewhere in Africa and on other continents in which large, monumental structures have been built by groups thought to be egalitarian in their social organization. This research has the potential to reshape global perspectives on how—and why—large groups of people come together to form complex societies. In this case, it appears that Lothagam North was built during a period of profound change. Pastoralism had just been introduced to the Turkana Basin and newcomers arriving with sheep, goats, and cattle would have encountered diverse groups of fisher-hunter-gatherers already living around the lake. Additionally, newcomers and locals faced a difficult environmental situation, as annual rainfall decreased during this period and Lake Turkana shrunk by as much as fifty percent. Early herders may have constructed the cemetery as a place for people to come together to form and maintain social networks to cope with major economic and environmental change.

“The monuments may have served as a place for people to congregate, renew social ties, and reinforce community identity,” states Anneke Janzen also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “Information exchange and interaction through shared ritual may have helped mobile herders navigate a rapidly changing physical landscape.” After several centuries, pastoralism became entrenched and lake levels stabilized. It was around this time that the cemetery ceased to be used.

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Gold horse head shines on public display

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

The gilded bronze horse head from a 1st century equestrian statue found in Waldgirmes, central Germany, is going on public display for the first time since it was unearthed in 2009. It’s been through a lot in its 2000 years, first getting dismembered by Germanic tribesmen making a point about the transitory nature of imperial power in the wake of their annihilation of Rome’s legions at the Battle of Teutoborg Forest, then getting thrown in a deep well, then getting dug up by archaeologists, then spending years undergoing painstaking conservation while the owner of the land where it was found took the state of Hesse to court to geometrically expand his compensation.

When I posted last month about the outcome of the trial (the court sided with the landowner), there were no recent photos of the horse’s head so I had to grudgingly make do with one taken in 2010 in the early stages of conservation. Very grudgingly. Most extremely grudgingly. All that gnashing of teeth can now be forgotten because Hesse has finally put the horse head on public display. The new exhibition opens Sunday and was previewed for the press on Friday. That means those of us not afforded the opportunity to see the gloriously golden equine in person benefit from the release of new photographs of it on display.

The Saalburg Roman Fort museum is the lucky recipient of the refreshed head. Built in the early 2nd century A.D. under the reign of the Emperor Trajan, the fort overlooking the Limes (the frontier of the Roman Empire) did sentry duty for 150 years before the frontier got too hot and the troops were withdrawn. The ruins of the Saalburg were rediscovered and excavated in the mid-19th century. Between 1897 and 1907, the fort was reconstructed by order of Kaiser Wilhelm II. It became an open-air museum and research facility surrounded by the remains of the Roman settlement which was also partially reconstructed. Today it is the only museum in Hesse that is entirely dedicated to the area’s Roman history.

Saalburg’s permanent exhibition has been updated and redesigned over the past few years, and the Waldgirmes head will be its centerpiece. The museum has created a wall-height poster depicting the original size of the full statue. The head alone is two feet long and weighs 33 pounds, so the statue was an impressive sight when it was intact. Another large panel explains how the horse head was excavated from a wooden barrel at the bottom of well shaft 36 feet deep.

That was just the beginning of the hard work. While the waterlogged anaerobic environment preserved the gilded bronze head, it did have some thorny condition issues mostly posed by the nature of gilding itself. The corrosion of the bronze manifested on the gold surface which, as on any gilded object, is extremely thin. Conservators struggled to remove those corrosion products without also removing precious gold. Patches of acrylic resin were applied to strengthen a few areas and then the entire piece was given a coating of resin for its protection. The conservation team made a conscious choice not to re-gild areas of loss.

Hesse’s Science and Arts Minister Boris Rhein showered the conservators with praise at the press preview of the exhibition, noting that their precision work allows us to see the exquisitely life-like details captured by the sculptor. The anatomy of the horse — muscles, veins, nostrils, teeth, eyes — is crafted with a verisimilitude only a highly skilled craftsman and artist could achieve.

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3,800-year-old relief found in Peru

Saturday, August 18th, 2018


Archaeologists have discovered a 3,800-year-old wall with a large relief at the ancient site of Vichama in Peru’s Caral Archaeological Zone. The relief is one meter (3.2 feet) high and 2.8 meters (9.2 feet) long and features four human heads, eyes closed, entwined by two serpents. Where the heads of the two snakes meet in the center of the wall is a fifth head, not human but anthropomorphic with a wide-eyed face and five appendages. Experts believe it may be a representation of a seed putting down roots.

The wall is made of adobe bricks and was found in the antechamber of a public building believed to be a ceremonial hall. The building was remodeled and built up over the years until it reached an area of 9400 square feet. The structure faced Vichama’s agricultural fields in the Huaura Valley.

Vichama was an urban center of the Norte Chico civilization, the oldest in the Americas, which thrived in the coastal area of north-central Peru from around 3500 B.C. to 1800 B.C. Caral was the largest and oldest of Norte Chico’s settlements and may have been the oldest city in the Americas. Vichama was built in the last period of development of the Norte Chico culture.

Its remains were first unearthed in 2007 when the modern-day city of Végueta threatened to expand into the archaeological zone. Cultural heritage officials and the municipality made a deal to keep the site safe and thoroughly explore it. Excavations have been ongoing since then, and the unique art and architecture of Vichama attest to a major climate crisis that struck the area around 3,800 years ago. A succession of droughts lasting between 60 and 130 years caused widespread famine. Under too much pressure from famine and water scarcity, Caral was abandoned during the crisis. Vichama pulled through because it was just meters away from the ocean and was a major agricultural center as well, with fields extending the length and breadth of the right bank of the Huaura River. The combination of agriculture and fishing got its population through the hard times.

Archaeologist Ruth Shady, who oversees the site and announced the discovery, hypothesized that the serpents represent a water deity that irrigates the earth and makes seeds grow.

Shady said the relief was likely done towards the end of a drought and famine that the Caral civilization experienced. Other reliefs discovered nearby showed emaciated humans.

Archaeologists believe that the relief discovery reinforces the notion that these early humans were attempting to depict the difficulties they faced due to climate change and water scarcity, which had a large impact on their agricultural production.

This relief and other finds will be open to visitors on Friday, August 31st and Saturday, September 1st, the 11th anniversary of the start of excavations at the site.

On a side note, the gleeful face of the anthropormorphic seed reminds me that one of these years I have to make a set of emoticons for the blog that are pixel versions of highly expressive reliefs, masks, false heads, mummy portraits, mosaics, figurines, anything archaeological (and yes, of course that includes poop). I’ve come across enough pieces to ensure my archaeological emoticon team would be as diverse as it is educational.

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