Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Roman villa with large mosaic found in Spain

Wednesday, March 24th, 2021

The remains of a grand Roman estate with a large floor mosaic has been unearthed in the town of Rus in southern Spain. Found in the El Altillo neighborhood, the villa was in use between the first and fifth centuries, with the bulk of the construction documented thus far dating to the fourth century. The mosaic features motifs like guilloche knots and fleurs des lis in at least three colors.

Tesserae from the mosaics were discovered during recent agricultural activity in an olive grove half a mile from the center of town. They were reported the municipal authorities and the city commissioned archaeologists from the University of Jaén to do an emergency investigation of the site. When a geophysical survey and collection of material on the ground determined the site had significant archaeological potential, exploratory excavations followed.

The immediate goal was to document rooms with mosaic elements that might be in danger from agricultural work and/or looting. The investigation also aimed to map out the structures and uses of the ancient villa, exploring adjacent properties with the permission of the landowners to get a preliminary overview of the site.

The team found that the Roman estate was an expansive one and combined a large private residence with industrial areas. The mosaic covers the floor of the main reception room of the private residence. It was originally 30 feet wide and 60 feet long when intact, which would have made it one of the largest Roman mosaics ever discovered in the southern Iberian peninsula.

Across the property from the residence were production facilities for olive oil and a pottery kiln where roof tiles were made. There is also a burial area that dates to the Late Imperial period.

The city is excited by the prospect of an important archaeological asset attracting tourism, especially one connected to the area’s long tradition of olive oil production. It is working on drawing up new rules and processes to protect the remains that have been unearthed and to continue the excavations, in the future with the aid of volunteers from the community. The city council also hopes to have the site declared an Asset of Cultural Interest, which would give them access to funds to support additional exploration and preservation of the villa and its remains.

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Gold foil mask found at Bronze Age Sichuan site

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021

More than 500 important artifacts, including a rare gold foil mask, have been unearthed in six newly-discovered sacrificial pits at the Sanxingdui Bronze Age archaeological site in Guanghan, Sichuan, China. The gold mask is incomplete, but more than half of it survives. About 3,000 years old, the mask is large at nine inches wide and 11 inches high, the biggest of its kind ever discovered at the site. It weighs about 280 grams (10 oz) and is 84% pure. Archaeologists estimate that when intact, the mask weighed more than 500 grams, which would have made it not just the largest gold mask ever found, but also the heaviest gold object from the Bronze Age China.

Crammed to the gills with bronze sculptures, vessels, bells, altars, tools as well as jade and ivory objects, when the first two sacrificial pits were discovered within a month of each other in the summer of 1986, they revealed a previously unknown artistic style of such antiquity that upended the conventional wisdom that the dawn of Chinese art was centered in the Yellow River civilizations. Many of the objects found in the pits bore evidence of burning. Archaeologists believe the pits were used to house the ritual sacrifice of valuable and religiously symbolic objects. They were set alight in the pit and buried.

Artifacts from the Sanxingdui culture date to between 1700 and 1150 B.C. and attest to a highly developed bronze-making culture. The oldest free-standing life-sized bronze sculpture of a human (8’6″) was discovered in one of the Sanxingdui sacrificial pits, as was a stylized bronze tree 13 feet high adorned with birds and flowers. The two pits also contained dozens of bronze masks, several of which were originally adorned with gold foil coverings like the one discovered in the recent excavation of Pit No. 5. Archaeologists hypothesize that the masks may have been mounted on wooden poles or perhaps worn in rituals to represent gods or ancestors.

Sanxingdui is believed to have sat at the heart of the Shu state, which historians know relatively little about due to scant written records. Discoveries made at the site date back to the 12th and 11th centuries BC, and many of the items are now on display at an on-site museum.

The site has revolutionized experts’ understanding of how civilization developed in ancient China. In particular, evidence of a unique Shu culture suggests that the kingdom developed independently of neighboring societies in the Yellow River Valley, which was traditionally considered to be the cradle of Chinese civilization.

The Sanxingdui site has been archaeologically overlooked for decades, but a new push to study the rituals and ceremonies of this Bronze Age culture reopened excavations. These are the first new sacrificial pits found since the first two were unearthed 35 years ago. The third pit emerged on November 2019, and pits 4-8 were discovered from January through May 2020. They are rectangular in shape and range in dimensions from 38 square feet to more than 200 square feet. Archaeologists have excavated four of the pits to the artifact level and the remaining two to the fill layer covering the artifacts. Excavations will continue until the pits are fully explored.

Among the artifacts recovered are more gold ornaments — circles, birds, pieces of gold foil — bronze vessels with intricate anthropomorphic and zoomorphic decorative motifs, bronze masks, bronze trees, jade objects, whole trunks of elephant ivory plus carved ivory objects. Extremely rare bronze finds include a large vessel shaped like an owl and a complete zun, a wide-mouth drinking vessel that was typically cylindrical; this one is square, making it unique among the many exquisite bronzes recovered from Sanxingdui. Its shoulders are adorned with the heads of birds and animals. Another was made in a dragon shape and is unique among known bronze ware types from this period.

Organic remains were also found, including textiles, carbonized rice and seeds. There were fragments of two different kinds of silk: one a large quantity found in the ash layer of the sacrificial pit, so a direct offering that bundles of the highly-prized fabric were ritually burned in the sacrifice, the other found wrapping one of the objects of bronze ware.

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Engraved megaliths found in France

Sunday, March 21st, 2021

An excavation in Massongy, southeastern France, has unearthed a Neolithic stone circle with engraved stones. The Chemin des Bels site has two distinct occupation areas from the Middle Neolithic period: a small village and a large megalithic complex. It was occupied for a short time — just a few centuries — but during that period, the complex was went through five distinct stages.

The stone megaliths were installed in a deliberate, organized fashion. Its builders had a clear plan at every stage of redevelopment. The core megalith is a five-ton slab about 11 feet long, 3.6 feet wide and 3.3 feet high. It was carved to a point on one end, suggesting it may have originally been a menhir, but if so it was it stood somewhere else and was transported to Chemin des Bels because it has always been on its side at this location. The massive slab was then encircled by standing stones about three feet high. Eight of those standing stones remain today, but archaeologists estimate that there were at least 15 in the circle when it was originally constructed.

That was phase one of the site and it was brief, lasting a few decades. In phase two, the standing stones were knocked down and buried. The center slab was not, however, and in phase three pebble platforms were built around it. In the fourth phase the associated village was built just a few feet away from the megalith. It developed further in phase five before the site was abandoned.

During the excavation of the stone circle, archaeologists discovered that some of the megaliths were engraved with abstract geometric designs. In order to document the carvings, the team used Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) which captures even the smallest of engraved elements not visible to the naked eye by taking a series of pictures from a stationary point but using a moving light source.

The RTI analysis found that the stones were engraved at different times. The large slab was carved in three stages. The first designs were cup marks, about 20 of them in a loose U formation. Then some smaller divots were removed using the percussive piquetage technique around the cups and under the U. The piquetage punctures form a rectangular band. Lastly, a set of overlapping chevrons were engraved on top of the slab.

First, about twenty cups were hollowed out, forming a sort of large U. Then, numerous stakes were arranged around certain cups and below the U, these puncture-shaped removals form a large rectangular band. Finally, at the top of the slab, a series of intertwined rafters have been engraved.

Two intentionally broken slabs (before burial?) Bore multiple traces of geometric engraved lines. The RTI system makes it possible to trace the chronological order of these drawings. In both cases, we can see quadrangular, cruciform or herringbone patterns. One of the possible interpretations would be that these patterns represent an agricultural parcel landscape. The “Chemin des Bels” site is located a few hundred meters from the Chablais massif. From the plateaus of this massif, the agricultural landscapes must have resembled those engraved on the stones.

The “Chemin des Bels” is located in a vast set of known megalithic sites which has left many traces around Lake Geneva. However, its remarkable state of conservation, the proximity of a contemporary village as well as the wealth of associated material, testifying to successive redevelopments over a long period, make it a megalithic site of exceptional interest.

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New virtual tours of 8 Rome museums

Saturday, March 20th, 2021

Eight of Rome’s civic museums are offering new virtual tours. Available in Italian and English, to tours allow visitors to explore the museums floor-by-floor, in aerial views, through video, audio and information panels.

It’s a curated approach. Select objects on display and important features of the museums themselves are highlighted. You navigate by clicking on arrows, then click on hotspots targeting an object or area and the label/information pops up. If there is video or audio, clickable icons appear on the screen.  You can also bounce around using the map icon in the bottom right. It’s a little awkward to navigate and it’s not the kind of virtual tour that allows you to browse objects on display for hours because even when the collections are huge like the ones in Capitoline very few pieces are hotspots. It’s more about moving through some extremely cool spaces and seeing some celebrated pieces.

This is most effective for the smaller museums, particularly the Museo delle Mura and the Ara Pacis because the collection is comparatively sparse and the structure itself is the focus of the tour. The reliefs of the Ara Pacis are so complex, being able to zoom in on an area virtually and read detailed explanations is very satisfying. The Museo delle Mura was one of my favorite discoveries on my 2018 Rome trip and the best part was getting to clamber through the walls. The virtual tour gives you even more of that unbelievable view from the roof of the Porta Appia and connected defensive walls.

Here are the new virtual tours:

Musei Capitolini
Museo dell’Ara Pacis
Museo Napoleonico
Mercati di Traiano – Museo dei Fori Imperiali
Casino Nobile di Villa Torlonia
Centrale Montemartini
Museo delle Mura
Museo di Roma

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Rainfall exposes bronze bull at Olympia

Friday, March 19th, 2021

A small bronze figurine of a bull from the Geometric Period (1050-700 B.C.) has been discovered at the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. Heavy rainfall had exposed one its horns which caught the sharp eye of archaeologist Zacharoula Leventouri. The bull was excavated and removed to the laboratory of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Ilia where it was cleaned and conserved.

The figurine is intact and in excellent condition. Atop its stylized slim form are comparatively large forward-facing horns like an aurochs, the iconic wild bull which at the time this figurine was made still roamed southern Greece. It was found in the sacred grove of Alteos, the open-air enclosure that was the earliest precinct dedicated to Zeus at the site in the 10th-9th century B.C. (The classical Doric temple was built much later in the 5th century B.C.) The wee bull was a votive offering, one of thousands made by the devout of Zeus at the Olympia sanctuary during the Geometric Period.

The bull, like the horse, was one of the most important animals for human survival and the creation of civilization until modern times. Thus he acquired this special role in the worship of the gods of antiquity, that is, to be a beloved object which was dedicated by the faithful to their consolation, by supplication or as a sign of pleasure.

Like dozens of similar figurines depicting animals or human figures, the bronze bull seems to have been offered by a believer at the time of the sacrifice, as evidenced by the strong burn marks on the sediments and sediments removed during its purification. A large number of figurines found in the thick layer of ash from the altar of Zeus that covered the entire ​​Alteos area is exhibited in the second room of the Archaeological Museum of Olympia and is indicative of the importance of the Sanctuary of Olympia as a Panhellenic center.

The figurine will now be studied by archaeologists to narrow down its typology and chronology.

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Massive shellfish feast on Orkney dated to 5th-6th c.

Tuesday, March 16th, 2021

A pit filled with ancient shells at The Cairns site in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, has been radiocarbon dated to the 5th or 6th century. The Iron Age community at the site cooked 18,637 shellfish in the pit, ate them, and then threw the shells back in, all in one massive clambake. That’s more than half of all the shells found at The Cairns, all devoured in a single party.

The site director at The Cairns is University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute lecturer Martin Carruthers.

He said: “This is an astonishing number of shells for a short-lived, single-event context. This suggests it may have been part of a special food event, a feast involving the whole community of the site or even beyond.”

The majority of the shells, which were analysed by UHI Archaeology Institute Masters student Holly Young, belonged to limpets (84 per cent), with common periwinkles making up the rest.

The new radiocarbon dating results confirm that the great periwinkle gorge took place at the same time that a souterrain (an underground passageway) next to the pit was in use. It’s possible the association was more than temporal, that souterrains may have played a role in social and religious practices of feasting at the site. A second cache of shells was found on top of the stone slab roof the souterrain.

The first phase of occupation at the Cairns was in the Neolithic. In the Middle Iron Age (1st century B.C. – late 2nd, early 3rd century A.D.), a broch, a drystone roundhouse, was built, as were other dwellings and enclosure ditches around the settlement. As new structures went up in the settlement, the original broch fell into disuse and was partially built over. When the Iron Age community was throwing its shellfish party, the broch had been infilled. The souterrain was constructed going from outside to inside the former entrance to the broch.

Archaeologists also discovered whale bones from this period of activity. One bone from a giant fin whale, the second largest species after the blue whale, was carved into a vessel containing a human jawbone. It was positioned at the entrance to the broch next to red deer antlers and a broken quern, and the placement indicates they way they were laid out held symbolic value. More than 100 whale bones have been found from the Iron Age occupation of The Cairns, the largest collection of prehistoric whale bones.

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6,000-year-old gold objects found in Hungary

Monday, March 15th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered more than a dozen gold artifacts in three Copper Age graves at the Bükkábrány lignite mine in northeast Hungary. About 6,000 years old, these artifacts date to the early centuries of goldsmithing in Europe. The oldest gold jewelry in the world found in the Varna Necropolis, on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria, dates to between 4,600 and 4,200 B.C., six to two hundred years before the Bükkábrány pieces.

The mine site has been excavated since 2007 when large trunks of swamp cypress from the Miocene era were discovered not petrified, but mummified from having been encased in sand eight million years ago. A natural valley formed by the Csincse river, the area has seen human occupation from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages. There is archaeological evidence of millennia of human settlement, including communities from the middle Copper Age Bodrogkeresztúr culture. The latest excavation unearthed 34 Bodrogkeresztúr-era graves, identified by the characteristic pottery style.

Most of the graves were modestly furnished, but three adult women were buried with prestigious gold ornaments. The gold objects found inside the three graves include hooped and conical pendants. The hoops are tabbed with four holes in each tab. Archaeologists believe they may have originally been mounted onto a headdress. Gold was still extremely rare in the Carpathian Basin at this time and while similar pieces have been discovered at other Copper Age sites, these objects are exceptional for the quality of gold and craftsmanship.

A fourth burial of note did not have any gold artifacts, but contained the remains of an adult man buried with a cracked stone blade, a polished stone axe and copper pick weighing two pounds. The pick was almost certainly not a practical implement. That much metal weight would have been exorbitantly expensive and it was probably more of a leadership symbol like a scepter than a tool.

It is not clear from the style of manufacture whether the objects were made locally or imported. They will be studied further and conserved at the Herman Ottó Museum in Miskolc.

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Nemi ship mosaic/coffee table goes on display

Saturday, March 13th, 2021

A section of mosaic flooring from one of the Nemi Roman ships, lavish floating palaces built by the profligate Emperor Caligula, that for decades was used a coffee table by a couple in New York City has gone on permanent display at the Museum of Roman Ships in Nemi. Antique dealer Helen Fioratti and her husband Nereo acquired the opus sectile mosaic in Italy in the 1960s. The broker claimed it had belonged to the noble Barberini family, but there was no ownership record. The Fiorattis had it mounted in a marble frame and put it on a pedestal in their living room where it served as coffee table and much-admired conversation piece in their Park Avenue apartment for 40 years.

Its secret identity was first rediscovered in 2013 when Dario Del Bufalo, an expert in ancient marbles and author of several books on the subject, was in Manhattan for a book signing. His book on porphyry included an old photograph of the mosaic, which has unusual circular tiles made of the precious dark red marble. He was able to authenticate the panel as one of the luxurious decorations salvaged from the ships thanks to those circles of porphyry and a crack that had been restored. The museum that housed the Nemi ships burned down in 1944 in a battle between Allied forces and the Nazi troops occupying the museum. The hulls of the ships, raised in an arduous lake-draining operation the late 1920s and early 30s, were destroyed in the fire, an incalculable loss, as were many of its salvaged parts.

The mosaic was not in the museum at the time. It was removed before 1944 eventually, nobody knows how, wound up in an antiques shop in Rome couple of decades later. After a four-year investigation, the mosaic was seized by the Manhattan DA’s office and returned to the Italian consulate in October 2017. It has been displayed at temporary exhibits in Italy since its repatriation, but now has a permanent home with the other rare surviving artifacts from Caligula’s great floating palaces.

Lake Nemi was sacred to the goddess Diana. She was worshipped in a sacred grove on its slopes as far back as the 6th century B.C., and the Temple of Diana Nemorensis was built on the north shore around 300 B.C. By the time of Caligula, it was a popular pilgrimage site. By Roman law, no ship could sail on sacred waters. Caligula probably complied with the letter of the law by keeping them mostly anchored. He also built temples on board — both ships had rotating statue platforms believed to have been used for cult figures — which gave him another loophole to the no sailing on sacred waters law. As a devotee of Isis who was syncretically identified with Diana, he likely used his superyachts on her sacred lake to throw lavish parties for religious festivals like the Isidis Navigium, an annual celebration invoking the protection of Isis on sailors at the opening of the navigation season on March 5th.

Despite being built to the exacting standards of Roman seagoing vessels — their hulls were clad in lead sheets to prevent the depredations of shipworms which do not live in freshwater lakes and both ships were equipped with long steering oars — Caligula’s barges couldn’t have done much sailing on the lake even if hadn’t been a sacrilege to do so. Nemi is a small, roughly circular lake formed from the crater of an extinct volcano. Its average width is 1 kilometer. The barges were 73 x 24 meters and 70 x 20 meters, so it only would have taken a voyage of 14 ship lengths to cross its full width. They were lake palaces, not a means of transport, and if they left the shore at all, they were at most rowed (in the case of the smaller boat) and/or towed (the larger had no means of propulsion) to the center of the lake.

Suetonius cites Caligula’s opulent taste in ships as an example of his profligacy in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars:

He built two ships with ten banks of oars, after the Liburnian fashion, the poops of which blazed with jewels, and the sails were of various parti-colours. They were fitted up with ample baths, galleries, and saloons, and supplied with a great variety of vines and other fruit-trees. In these he would sail in the day-time along the coast of Campania, feasting amidst dancing and concerts of music.

The Nemi ships had the same luxurious decorations and amenities, even though they had nowhere to go, as attested to by the floor mosaic which is of highest quality in materials and craftsmanship. 

Today the museum houses 1/5th scale replicas of the ships, although last summer the mayor of Nemi was making noises about asking Germany to fund full-scale replicas by way of reparations. The problem with that notion is that there is no direct evidence that the Nazis burned the ships. Allied planes bombed the museum striking at the German anti-aircraft artillery nest which was deliberately installed there in the hope that priceless archaeological patrimony would act as a shield. The bomb drop did minimal damage to the exterior of the museum, and hours later museum staffers saw Nazi occupiers with torches walking around inside just before the fire broke out the night of May 31st. The Germans cleared out that night. US ground troops arrived four days later. 

Here’s a silent but deadly (in a good way) British Pathé newsreel documenting the exposure of one of the ships in 1930.

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Unique Bronze Age ceremonial sword found in Denmark

Friday, March 12th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered a unique Bronze Age ceremonial sword in the village of Håre on the Denmark island of Funen. The sword dates to the Bronze Age Phase IV, about 3,000 years ago, which makes it an extremely rare find, but what makes it unique is that it is completely intact, from bronze blade to wood grip. Even the plant fibers it was wrapped in are extant.

The site was excavated as part of a year-long project to survey the 37-mile-long route of the Baltic Pipe gas pipeline. Odense City Museums archaeologists were on the last leg of their excavations in west Funen when they discovered the remains of an ancient settlement where the sword was ritually deposited 3,000 years ago.

The swords was removed to the Odense City Museums for cleaning and conservation in controlled conditions. Because of the diversity of materials used in its construction, the sword had to be dismantled to see to the different preservation needs of each piece. The fiber grip winding, which may be bast from linden wood, was unraveled and the wood and horn components separated from the metal of the blade. Samples were taken to identify the materials. The sample from the plant fiber will be radiocarbon dated to determine when the sword was made.

The sword weighs almost three pounds (1.3 kilos), a large and very expensive amount of bronze to secure at that time. The grip was cast together with the blade shaft of the sword and covered in wood and antler/bone for a comfortable hold. The metal was likely imported from Central Europe and then crafted by a local blacksmith. The sample from the bronze alloy of the sword will be tested to identify its exact composition and its source location.

When conservation and study is complete, conservators will reassemble the sword and put it on public display, probably at the Odense Møntergården museum which has permanent exhibits on the ancient history of Funen.

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Genetic analysis reveals oldest indiscriminate massacre

Thursday, March 11th, 2021

Genetic studies of prehistoric massacres have found instances connected to warfare (all male, likely died in battle), targeted executions of families, migrants in conflict with local groups and ritual killings for religious purposes. The massacre in the Copper Age burial in Potočani, Croatia, doesn’t fit any of these categories.

The mass grave was discovered during construction of a garage on private land in 2007. In a small pit about 6.5 feet in diameter and three feet deep, archaeologists unearthed the skeletal remains of 41 individuals. Many of the bones were comingled, some still articulated. Radiocarbon dating of the remains dated the burial to 4200 B.C. and some pottery fragments recovered from the pit identify the deceased as members of the Lasinja culture of the Middle Copper Age.

Researchers cleaned and documented the bones, recording age, sex and any evidence of trauma or illness. Of the 41 individuals, 20 were female, 21 male. There were 21 children with the youngest between two and five and the oldest between 11 and 17. Of the 20 adults, 14 were younger (18-25), five middle-aged (36-50) and one’s age could not be determined. They had good teeth and were generally in good health, aside from a case of meningitis and five of scurvy.

A total of 28 perimortem injuries were found on 13 skulls. Most of those were from blunt force trauma, with a smaller numbers of stabbing and piercing wounds and cuts. The trauma was inflicted regardless of age or sex. Little boys and girls were struck just as the adults were. All 41 were buried at the same time, so while the remains only confirm violent death for 13 of them, it’s almost certain the others died by violence too, the marks of it just didn’t make it to the bones.

The research team was able to extract ancient DNA from 38 of the 41 individuals from the Potočani mass grave. Genomic analysis found that they were a homogeneous community with predominantly Anatolian Neolithic ancestry and a soupcon (~9%) of Western European hunter-gatherer ancestry. They were not a close kinship group, however. Only 11 of the deceased were related to each other in four distinct lines: a young man with two daughters and his nephew, two young sisters with a young man who was a 3rd degree relative, a father and son, a boy with his paternal aunt or half-sister.

These results indicate a large and stable population (estimates based on the DNA data put it from 20,100–75,600 people at the time of the burial) was attacked indiscriminately. No families were deliberately targeted. It wasn’t a battle between two armed factions.

The study also considered the potential role of climate change in the mass burial event. When climate changes, resources such as water, vegetation — including feed for cattle and other livestock — and game animals become less predictable. Furthermore, hazards, such as unpredictable extreme weather, become more common.

“These factors tend to disrupt human lifeways, and groups sometimes try to take over others’ territories and resources,” [University of Wyoming anthropology professor James] Ahern explains. “Increases in population size cause groups to overextend their local resources and require expansion into other areas. Both climate change and population increase tend to cause social disruption and violent acts, such as what happened at Potočani, that become more common as groups come into conflict with each other.”

The study has been published in the journal PLOS One and can be read here.

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