Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Drain digger finds Denmark’s largest Neolithic flint axe

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Tage Pinnerup was digging a new drain on his old friend Henrik Hansen’s property near the village of Kobberup on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula when he saw something sticking up out of the ground. It was a long, smooth almost rectangular piece of flint 50.5 centimeters (20 inches) long. Pinnerup had found a prehistoric axe before, so he recognized it as such, but because of how exceptionally large and finely worked it was, he figured it had to date to the Iron Age. A few days later he and Henrik Hansen found another one, this one 35 centimeters (14 inches) long.

They alerted the authorities to a potential treasure find, and Viborg Museum experts determined that they were not Iron Age, but rather Neolithic flint axes dating to 3800-3500 B.C. Back then the find site was a marshy area next to Tastum Lake, long since drained and converted into arable land. Because they were found in a bog, are a matched pair and so carefully worked, the axes weren’t likely to have been misplaced. Archaeologists believe they were deliberately deposited in the bog as ritual offerings. The 50.5 cm axe is the largest Neolithic flint axe ever discovered in Denmark.

“It’s fascinating that they could master the flint and produce such a perfect axe,” said Mikkel Kieldsen, an archaeologist and curator at Viborg Museum. “A lot of effort has been put into the axes, so the sacrifice must have really meant something.”

Flint is a challenging material to work. Like glass, it breaks easily and requires very careful handling. Judging from modern experiments replicating prehistoric flint tools, Kieldsen estimates it would have taken the craftsmen who produced these axes hundreds of hours to achieve so polished a result. Compare the slender length and cricket bat-like smoothness to this axe from around the same time as the Tastum axes, or these, which are about a thousand years younger and bear the characteristic divots and sheers of knapped flint.

That long, slender polish suggests these were not practical tools. The flint axe was an essential tool to Neolithic farmers who used it to clear wooded land for agriculture. It had to be sturdy, thick through the middle and razor sharp at the end to do the job properly. A narrow, long, thin axe would likely crack at the first blow. It’s connection to the still-new trend of agriculture made the axe a powerful cultural symbol and well as a highly prized piece of property, which is why they have been found in the passage graves and dolmens which were built in grand style at the same time the Tastum axes were made.

Archaeologists excavated the site further to see if their were any other artifacts to be found and came up empty. The axes are treasure trove and will be sent to the National Museum of Denmark for assessment next month. Before that happens, they will be on display at the Viborg Museum for the next three weeks.

Ancient skeleton mosaic found in Turkey

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

Turkish archaeologists have discovered an ancient mosaic in the remains of a house from the 3rd century that features a skeleton enjoying a large loaf of bread and pitcher of wine. It was found in 2012 in Turkey’s southernmost state, Hatay Province, in the provincial capital of Antakya, (Antioch in antiquity) during construction of a cable car system.

It is believed to have been the emblema, the elaborate centerpiece of a mosaic floor, in the triclinium (dining room) of an elegant villa. There are three scenes inside a rectangle with a woven guilloche border. On one end is missing a large section but the head and arms of a servant carrying a flame are visible. This represents the heating of the bath. The middle scene is almost intact and depicts two men moving towards a sundial on a column. The leader is a young man who was of some rank in the household, the son of the owner, perhaps, while the his manservant or butler follows. The sundial is set to between 9:00 and 10:00 PM and the text refers to him being late for dinner. The last panel has the recumbent skeleton, holding a drinking cup in one hand, his other arm thrown casually over his head, two loaves of bread and a wine amphora by his side. The motto “Be cheerful and live your life” is written on both sides of his head.

(Writer İlber Ortaylı disputes the eat, drink and be merry interpretation. He reads it as “You get the pleasure of the food you eat hastily with death” and thinks the structure was not a private home of a wealthy person, but a sort of soup kitchen trying to hustle people out the door as quickly as possible.)

There’s some confusion over the date of the mosaic. The first article about the find that I read said it was from the 3rd century, which means A.D., but later stories by the same press outlet date it to the 3rd century B.C. That in turn has been picked up by the international press. Greek was spoken and written by the elites in both periods, so the words are of no particular help.

This one says “Hatay is known for its Roman-era mosaics dating back to the second and third centuries BCE,” but those are not Roman dates. Antioch was founded by Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus I Nicator in 300 B.C. and was ruled by Seleucid monarchs until 64 B.C. when it was absorbed into the Roman Syrian province as a free city.

It doesn’t seem likely to me that this mosaic was created in the early years of the Seleucid monarchy. I think this is a Roman-era mosaic, because of its glass tesserae, the theme, look and quality of the piece. Indeed, Demet Kara, the Hatay Archaeology Museum archaeologist who provides the date in all the articles, compares the Antioch mosaic to other skeleton mosaics in Italy and those are unquestionably Roman.

While the theme of a skeleton or skull representing the inevitability of death was Hellenistic, the Romans developed it further in their art. They were fond of a skeleton partying with them in the dining room. There are several extant drinking, eating and reclining mosaics from the 1st century found at Pompeii and in Rome. The glorious Boscoreale treasure, a silver dining set buried before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., has two silver cups embossed with the skeletons of philosophers and engraved with Epicurean sayings like “Enjoy life while you can, for tomorrow is uncertain.” The cups, like the skeleton mosaics, were meant to remind diners of the fleeting nature of life and the importance of enjoying the moment, a relevant message for a room dedicated to the gustatory pleasures.

A large number of mosaics of exceptional quality have been found in Antakya because Antioch was an important city for centuries. In the Early Roman period, it was the third largest city in the world after Rome and Alexandria. The homes of wealthy and influential people were decorated at great expense with the best floor art money could buy. Antioch had its own mosaic schools and workshops that were internationally renown. Roman Antioch was replete with top notch mosaics.

Hatay’s mayor, Lütfi Savaş, has visions of tourism plums dancing in his head. Just this February he helped launch the Mosaic Road Project to promote four cities in the province that are rich in Greek and Roman-era mosaics — Hatay, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş and Şanlıurfa — as desirable tourist destinations. The plan is to build an archaeological park in Hatay, scheduled for completion in 2017, and to house the mosaics in a dedicated museum. Ortaylı thinks the skeleton mosaic should remain in situ and a new museum built on the site similar to Israel’s plan for the Lod mosaic.

Sicily goes to London

Monday, April 25th, 2016

The British Museum has opened a new exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, which brings together more than 200 artifacts from 4,000 years of Sicilian history, many of which have never been to the UK before. The exhibition focuses on two time periods when Sicily was at the forefront of art and culture: when it settled by Greek colonists in the 7th century and when it was ruled by Norman kings from 1100 to 1250.

Objects on display include pieces from the British Museum’s collection, other institutions in the UK and elsewhere, and some spectacular pieces on loan from Sicily.

A rare and spectacularly well preserved, brightly painted terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, is one of the highlights of the loans coming from Sicily. It shows a scene of an animal combat on the upper tier, while below stand three striking fertility goddesses. The British Museum is also fortunate to be receiving on loan a magnificent terracotta architectural sculpture of a Gorgon, the famous Greek monster, that was once perched on the highest point of a building at Gela in south-east Sicily. Terracotta ornaments were frequently used to decorate the upper levels of buildings on Sicily and are amongst the finest that have survived from the ancient world. Another important Sicilian loan is a rare and iconic marble sculpture of a warrior from ancient Akragas, modern Agrigento. Marble statues were likely to have been commissioned, carved and imported into Sicily from overseas or made by local sculptors, trained in the Greek tradition. Such rare statues decorated major temples or were part of sculptural groups, most of which are long gone.

The pieces from the Norman era emphasize what a cultural crossroads it was. The Normans conquered Muslim Sicily in 1072 and the court took full advantage of the rich well of artistic talent from diverse cultures — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic — who had ruled the island before them. There’s a gold mosaic of the Virgin Mary of Byzantine style which is the sole surviving panel of the mosaics that once adorned Palermo Cathedral (only on display until June 14th), a 16th century copy of a 12th century map made by Arabic cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi for the Norman King Roger II, and a funerary inscription installed by the Christian priest Grisandus for his mother Anna in 1149. It features the eulogy in four different languages (well, three and a half): on top is Arabic written in Hebrew script, the left in Latin, the right in Greek and Arabic in actual Arabic on the bottom. The multilingual approach was common in Norman Sicily, with public inscriptions often written in several languages.

The exhibition runs through August 14th. If you aren’t likely to make it London in time (or even if you are, really), you’ll enjoy this behind the scenes look at some of the more spectacular objects in the exhibition guided by curators Peter Higgs and Dirk Booms.

And now, an avalanche of beautiful pictures.

4,500-year-old burial found in Peru fishing town

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered a 4,500-year-old burial at the archaeological site of Aspero, an ancient preceramic fishing town in northern Peru. Analysis of the bones revealed that the deceased was a woman about 40 to 50 years of age at the time of death. The burial was found in the Huaca of the Idols, one of two monumental platform mounds (earthwork terraced pyramids shored up with quarried stone walls and river rock fill which ranged in size from modest to huge) in the town. Her crouched body was wrapped in three layers, the inner two of cotton, the outer of reeds which was fastened closed with rope. Buried with her was a pottery vessel containing the remains of vegetables and seeds, a bead necklace, a Spondylus pendant and four tupus, bone brooches carved in the shapes of birds and monkeys.

The wrapping of the body, the location of the burial and grave goods indicate the woman was a high rank personage of the Caral civilization, the oldest civilization in the Americas which dominated a network of settlements in the coastal area of north-central Peru from around 3500 B.C. to 1800 B.C. First explored in 1905, Aspero was one of the first Caral sites identified by archaeologists before it was recognized as a civilization. Thorough, extensive archaeological documentation of the sites only began in the 1990s under the leadership of Dr. Ruth Shady (no relation to Slim) who named the civilization after the inland town of Caral which is believed to have been the biggest city and the oldest urban center in the Americas.

Dr. Shady and her team discovered the remains of the woman in Aspero. The combination of coastal and inland animals represented in the tupus is evidence of the close economic and cultural connection between the fishing-rich sites along the coast and the agricultural interior. Other than edible plants, the inland Caral towns appear to have focused on growing cotton which the coastal sites needed for their fishing nets. There’s also some evidence of maize being grown as a grain staple, but it seems fish was the primary source of food for coastal and interior towns.

With the archaeological study of these sites still being in its adolescence if not infancy, the discovery of the burial of a high status woman will provide new insight into Caral society.

Shady noted the importance of this discovery to further understand the dynamics of the oldest social organization in the Americas. [...]

“This find shows evidence of gender equality, that is, both women and men were able to play leading roles and attain high social status more than 1,000 years ago,” Shady underlined.

“Unparalleled” Roman villa found in Wiltshire

Monday, April 18th, 2016

In February of 2015, rug designer Luke Irwin was converting a small barn on his southwest Wiltshire property into a ping-pong room for his very lucky children. Not wanting to mar the beautiful landscape with an overhead cable strung from the farmhouse to the bar, Irwin insisted electricians lay the cables for the future game room underground. When they dug the trench, they came across a flat, hard layer 18 inches under the surface. It was a red, white and blue mosaic in a geometric woven pattern known as guilloche.

Irwin took a picture of the mosaic and sent it to the Wiltshire Council. Within 24 hours, council archaeologists were on the spot. They identified the mosaic as a top quality Roman work of the kind you’d see only in the most expensive, important villas in Roman Britain. Geophysical survey of the site found that the mosaic was in the destroyed or collapsed wing of a large Roman villa. The gateway where the mosaic was found leads to the modern farmhouse and outbuildings which obviously cannot be excavated, but archaeologists believe they were built in the center of where the ancient villa once stood. The farmhouse stands on a slab of Purbeck marble that is likely of Roman origin.

In April of 2015, the Wiltshire Archaeology Service, Salisbury Museum and Historic England worked together to dig a few test pits in key areas of the property. They were able to confirm that the villa was built between 175 an 220 A.D. and was regularly renovated through the mid-4th century. It was three storeys high with a footprint of at least 165 feet x 165 feet, and possibly as large as 230 by 230 feet. There’s evidence that it was pillaged in 360 A.D. only to be reoccupied in the 5th century.

Other artifacts discovered underscore how rich and important the owners of the villa were. There are hundreds of discarded oyster and whelk shells which would have been cultivated on the coast and been transported alive to Wiltshire from the coast in barrels of salt water. Archaeologists also found a Roman well in excellent condition, a bath house and, unassuming in the garden where it was used as a geranium planter, the stone coffin of a Roman child. There’s high status pottery, coins, brooches and copious animal bones both domestic and wild which bear the signs of butchering.

Only a few test pits have been dug, but Roberts said it was clear the walls of the villa were probably still more than a metre high, although they are buried under alluvial sediment from a nearby river. In addition, the mosaic has been revealed to be of particularly high quality. “Everything about this villa suggests it was made of the highest-quality materials,” added Roberts. “We have identified bits of stone that have come from at least 13 different British quarries. This was the country house of a powerful, rich Roman. Doubtless he also had a city house in London or Cirencester.”

Intriguingly, the house was not destroyed after the collapse of the Roman empire, said [Historic England archaeologist Dr. David] Roberts. Archaeologists have discovered timber structures erected in the fifth century. Roberts said the remains from this period, between the end of Roman occupation and the completion of Saxon domination of England, could open a window into one of the least understood periods in British history. It could also reveal how people responded to the collapse of the Roman empire, the superpower of the age.

Other than the construction of the labourers’ cottages that would be converted into the current farmhouse, the property has been left alone and undeveloped, used primarily as grazing land, since the villa was last inhabited in the 5th century. This gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to explore one of the largest Roman houses in Britain with little to no interference from later agriculture or construction. Dr. Roberts called the villa “unparalleled in recent years,” a “hugely valuable site in terms of research, with incredible potential,” and one of the best sites he has ever worked on.

And yet, the test pits have all been refilled and there are no current plans to further excavate this momentous find.

[Roberts] added: “Unfortunately, it would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to fully excavate and the preserve the site, which cannot be done with the current pressures.

“We would very much like to go back and carry out more digs to further our understanding of the site. But it’s a question of raising the money and taking our time, because as with all archaeological work there is the risk of destroying the very thing you seek to uncover.”

The discovery of the villa has inspired Irwin to design a line of rugs with mosaic patterns. They even made rug tesserae, little cubes of hand-woven silk set between wool lines. I like how they’ve distressed the rugs so that have faded and “missing” areas like real ancient mosaics.

Unique Pictish Stone on display at Elgin Museum

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016


Three years have passed since Andy Johnstone broke a plough on a 1,500-pound Pictish Symbol Stone in a field in Dandaleith, near Craigellachie in northeastern Scotland. Landowner Mr. Robinson reported the find to the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (ACAS) and its experts determined the stone is Class I, the earliest type of symbol stone. It dates to the 6th-8th century B.C. and the symbols — an eagle, a crescent, a V-rod, a mirror case symbol, a notch rectangle and Z-rod — are carved on two adjacent sides, a unique configuration so far as we know.

Mr. Robinson allowed the five and a half foot-long pink granite stone to remain on his property for a year before arrangements could be made to remove it for conservation. In 2014, the Dandaleith Stone was transferred to Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation in Leith, Edinburgh, where Graciela Ainsworth’s team conserved it, documented it and laser scanned it to create a 3D model of the stone.

Meanwhile, the symbol stone was declared a Treasure Trove and the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel allocated the find to the Elgin Museum, Scotland’s oldest independent museum (est. 1842), in Elgin, just 15 miles north of Dandaleith. The museum then had to raise the funds to pay the landowner and finder a fee equal to its assessed market value, plus more to pay for transportation, conservation and display. The fundraising was successful, thanks to contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, AIM, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim’s Trust, and Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service.

On March 1st of this year, the Dandaleith Stone was transported to the Elgin Museum by Graciela Ainsworth. She also brought the carved Pictish and early Medieval stones from the museum’s permanent collection that were conserved at her Edinburgh facility. The next day, the Dandaleith Stone was hoisted into position in the museum’s new display by the Elgin Marble Company which generously donated the equipment, time and manpower necessary to raise the massive stone and install it vertically next to a new row of lit shelves to display the museum’s other, much smaller carved stones.

The new Pictish Stone display opened to the public on Saturday, March 26th. Ploughman and finder Andy Johnstone was invited to cut the ribbon at the exhibition opening.

Burial ground unearthed at Laos’ Plain of Jars

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

Archaeologists have unearthed a burial ground at one of Laos’ most fascinating and mysterious ancient sites, the Plain of Jars. The remains are estimated to be about 2,500 years old. An international team of archaeologists from The Australian National University (ANU), Monash University and the archaeology division of the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism discovered seven burials and four probable burials with ceramic grave goods.

The Plain of Jars is a group of more than 90 megalithic sites in the central Lao province of Xieng Khouang which are peppered with monumental stone jars carved from a quarry five to six miles away and then dragged to the various jar groupings. This was an impressive feat as some of the jars are massive; the largest weigh 10 metric tons. Most of them are made of sandstone, but four other rock types — granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia — were also used. They range from three to 10 feet high, two to six-and-a-half feet in diameter and are basically cylindrical in shape although they funnel upwards a little with a wider bottom than top. Rims around the top suggest they used to have lids, but no lids have ever been discovered in situ. Other stone pieces have been found, however: discs placed on the ground over burial pits and unworked stone grave markers.

Each jar grouping contains between one and 392 jars, the latter of which is near a Hmong village that can only be accessed by foot. The group where the burial ground was recently discovered is called Site 1 and has more than 300 jars, stone discs and grave markers. Very little is known about the makers of the Plain of Jars megaliths. With no writing and few engravings on the stones, archaeologists haven’t had much to go on.

In the first excavations in the 1930s, archaeologists found evidence of cremation, including burned teeth and bone fragments, inside the jars. They also found unburned human skeletal remains buried around the jars along with pottery, iron and bronze objects, beads and other artifacts. After that, there was a gap of six decades before the next archaeological explorations of the site. For almost a decade (1964-1973), the Plain of Jars was pelted with an unspeakable number of bombs by the US in the Secret War against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communists. US planes dropped 262 million cluster bombs on Laos, almost all of them on the Plain of Jars, and 80 million of them never exploded. Many of the ancient stones suffered irreparable damage, and the unexploded ordnance made one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world so dangerous that archaeologists didn’t return until 1994, and even though they stuck to surveys and a handful of excavations then they were taking enormous risks.

UNESCO and the Mines Advisory Group NGO cleared seven of the jar sites between 2004 and 2007, one of which was Site 1. This opened the door for a major archaeological excavation that might answer some of the many questions about who made these jars and why.

One popular theory was that the jars were used as vessels for decomposing bodies. Once the soft tissues had decayed, the bones were then buried around the jars. This year’s discovery of primary burial where the individual was interred in the burial ground and never moved is therefore of great importance.

[The Australian National University archaeologist and dig leader] Dr O’Reilly said the dig had revealed three distinct types of burial.

“There are pits full of bones with a large limestone block placed over them and other burials where bones have been placed in ceramic vessels,” he said. “Our excavations have also revealed, for the first time at one of these sites, a primary burial, where a body was placed in a grave.”

He also said that determining the status of the buried individuals was difficult due to a lack of material objects buried with them, but hoped some genetic analysis might shed some light on whom these people were related to.

DNA and stable isotope analysis could provide key information on the ethnicity and geographic origin of the people who used the stone jars. The project will continue for five years, stretching further afield to the Assam region of northeastern India where there are megalithic jar sites that are similar enough to the Laotian Plain of Jars to explore whether there may be a link between them.

Ancient textiles found in Nepal suggest Silk Road ran further south

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

Analysis of rare ancient textiles discovered in a tomb in Nepal suggest the Silk Road network may have extended further south than previously believed. The textile fragments were found in the Samdzong 5, one in a complex of 10 shaft tombs dug into a cliff face in Upper Mustang, Nepal, between 400 and 650 A.D. (Samdzong 5 dates to around 500 A.D.). The complex is 4,000 meters above sea level and 30 meters above ground surface and can only be accessed climbing the cliff face. People didn’t even know they were there until an earthquake in 2009 sheered off the facade of the cliff and exposed the tombs. The earthquake also caused the ceilings of the tombs to collapse, damaging the contents and accelerating the decay of organic that had otherwise been well-preserved thanks to the high altitude and stable dry conditions inside the caves.

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of 105 people in the tomb complex, but Samdzong 5 only contained two sets of disarticulated remains, one of an adult, one of a child aged 8-12. The skeletal remains of the adult were found in a wooden coffin with an impressive array of associated grave goods: two large copper vessels, a ladle, iron daggers, cups and trays made of wood and bamboo, copper and bronze bangles and thousands of glass beads. The star artifact was a mask made of gold and silver that archaeologists believe was a death mask placed over the face of the adult. Pinholes border the edges of the mask, which indicates the mask was once sewn to fabric. Textile fragments were discovered in close proximity to the coffin and goods.

Small samples from four textiles were examined with a scanning electron microscope to identify the fibers and their source(s). Two of the samples are degummed silk in a fine tabby weave. The yarn is untwisted and glossy, typical of Chinese silk. These textiles almost certainly were traded over long distances to get to Nepal, because there was no local silk production. The other two samples were found to be animal fibers in a warp-faced tabby and a twill weave. Cloth beads and copper tubular beads were sewn into the textiles in parallel rows.

The metals and beads were also found to have originated outside of Nepal. Some of the metals came from either Tibet or India; the beads came from a number of sources including South Asia, Central Asia and Sassania. The pigments were analyzed using micro-Raman spectrometry (MRS), the organic dyes using high pressure liquid chromatography with diode array detection (HPLC-DAD). MRS identified cinnabar pigment; HPLC-DAD found Indian lac, munjeet, turmeric (curcuma) and dyer’s knotweed or indigo dyes. All of these materials can be sourced in India or environs.

Identification of degummed silk fibres and munjeet and Indian lac dyes in the textile finds suggests that imported materials from China and India were used in combination with those locally produced. Says Gleba: “There is no evidence for local silk production suggesting that Samdzong was inserted into the long-distance trade network of the Silk Road.”

“The data reinforce the notion that instead of being isolated and remote, Upper Mustang was once a small, but important node of a much larger network of people and places. These textiles can further our understanding of the local textile materials and techniques, as well as the mechanisms through which various communities developed and adapted new textile technologies to fit local cultural and economical needs.”

The use imported, expensive materials as well as local ones is all unique to Samdzong 5, as are the mask and coffin. The other tombs have very little cultural material of any kind, just the human remains. This indicates the person in Samdzong 5 was an elite individual.

Roman mosaic bonanza at the Getty

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has an exceptional collection of Roman floor mosaics from the Imperial era. Some of them have been on display consistently, but others will be seen by the public for the first time in Roman Mosaics Across the Empire, a new exhibition that opened on Wednesday at the Getty Villa. It features mosaics from provinces of the Roman Empire all over the Mediterranean — Italy, France, North Africa, Syria — done in different styles with different themes.

There’s bear hunt from Baiae, outside of Naples, a head of Medusa surrounded by a glorious optical illusion-inducing geometrical design from Rome, an Orpheus surrounded by animals from Saint-Romain-en-Gal, France, a hare and two birds with geometric border panels from Antioch, Syria, a dramatic lion attacking an onager from Hadrumentum, modern-day Sousse, Tunisia. These are top quality artworks which adorned the homes of the very wealthy, public baths, even early Christian churches.

The show also features a close look at the Getty Conservation Institute’s work conserving the mosaics from the Imperial Roman heyday of Bulla Regia in Tunisia, North Africa. Known for its unique villas with subterranean floors — smart design in the heat of Tunisia — Bulla Regia had the greatest numbers of senators in Roman North Africa. It was an important city and its exquisite art and architecture testify to that importance. The GCI is working with the Institut National du Patrimoine of Tunisia and the World Monuments Fund to fully conserve one of the most important private residences in the city, the House of the Hunt, and to devise a plan for the long-term conservation and maintenance of the 400 mosaics that have already been unearthed at Bulla Regia over the past hundred years. Some of the works will be restored for display; others will be reburied. The idea is to make Bulla Regia a template for in situ conservation that can be applied to mosaics elsewhere in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Highlights of the site’s breathtaking beauty can be seen in this video about the project:

The focus on best practices of situ conservation is in marked contrast to the Getty’s past see-no-evil acquisition policy evinced in more than one of the mosaics on display in this exhibition. The Getty bought 23 panels of the Bear Hunt in 1972 from a Switzerland-based antiques dealer (surprise!) who told them only that it had been in an Italian collection. It was almost certainly illegally exported, but the museum looked the other way as it so often did. Recently Getty researchers attempted to trace the ownership history and there’s a big gap between 1929 and 1972. The last known owner in 1929 was refused an export license because there were doubts as to whether he actually had legal title to the mosaic. Somewhere in those four decades, probably closer to 1972 than 1929, the mosaic was trafficked to Zurich and thence to the Getty. Four other panels from the original mosaic were eventually found by the Italian police and are now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.

The Getty is offering a number of lectures related to the exhibition. The Handling Session looks particularly compelling.

How were mosaics created from pieces of stone and glass? Learn how these intricate architectural decorations were made in this multisensory handling session. Touch tools and materials similar to those used by ancient mosaicists, including tesserae, slaked lime, marble dust, and nippers.

Lucky Angelenos can take an early lunch and handle tesserae every Thursday and Friday from 11:00 AM-12:00 PM through September 9th. The exhibition runs until September 12th, 2016. For those of us who won’t be able to see the mosaics live, the Getty has made a companion catalogue to the exhibition available free online: Roman Mosaics in the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Inscribed Etruscan stele found in Tuscany

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

Archaeologists and students with the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project excavating the ancient Etruscan settlement of Poggio Colla about twenty miles northeast of Florence have discovered an ancient stele with a long inscription in Etruscan. Just days before the end of the dig, the team found an oddly shaped sandstone slab embedded in the foundations of a temple wall. When they first unearthed a section of the stone, they weren’t sure what it was. An unfinished column base or a recycled podium stand were suggested as possibilities, but when more of the slab was revealed, they saw the faint traces of an inscription and realized it was stele. It took the team several days of cautious excavation to find the inscription was an unusually long one, with multiple characters engraved along the edges of the stele.

The slab weighs about 500 pounds and is almost four feet high and more than two feet wide. It dates to around the 6th century B.C. Archaeologists believe the stele was part of a sacred display in the first temple built on the site, an oval structure made of wood that bucchero pottery fragments date to after the early 7th century B.C. It was demolished around 2,500 years ago and new, larger temple was built with a stone podium and stone Tuscan Doric column bases. The old stele was reused as a foundation stone in the new temple.

The news of the find quickly spread through the archaeological community of Tuscany. Two days after the stone was excavated, visiting Etruscan scholars watched as professional art and artifact movers recommended by the Tuscan Archaeological Superintendency lifted the stele from the site, strapped it to a sled and slowly lowered it down the wooded hillside to a waiting pickup truck. It was then transported to the laboratories of the Superintendency in Florence for conservation.

Conservators are photographing and laser scanning the stele to reveal the full details of the inscription. The sandstone has been worn and chipped away and one side has been reddened, probably by fire. It will have to be cleaned before experts have a chance of deciphering the inscription, but they have counted more than 75 characters (letters and punctuation marks), an unusually long text for an Etruscan stele.

Etruscan is often described as a “lost” language, and while it’s true that there are no known living languages related to it, it’s not an untranslatable mystery. In fact, scholars know a fair amount about it from the approximately 13,000 inscriptions in the language that have been discovered. The known vocabulary is limited because most of those inscriptions are very short funerary texts found in tombs or “property of” lines on bronze mirrors.

(I have to briefly digress to mention my favorite Etruscan inscription: the Liver of Piacenza, a bronze sculpture of a life-sized sheep’s liver that is divided into sections labeled with the name of the deity believed to inhabit that piece of the liver. It’s a sort of guide for the haruspex, a diviner who read omens and made predictions from the entrails of sacrificed animals.)

The stele is not a funerary text. It’s a religious dedication from an early phase of the site. Its location adds to its rarity since most Etruscan inscriptions have been in what was once southern Etruria. Poggio Colla is in the northern Etruscan territory.

“We know how Etruscan grammar works, what’s a verb, what’s an object, some of the words,” Warden said. “But we hope this will reveal the name of the god or goddess that is worshiped at this site.” The text will be studied and published by a noted expert on the Etruscan language, Rex Wallace, Professor of Classics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.[...]

It would be a rare discovery to identify the Etruscan god or goddess to which the sanctuary was dedicated.

“Apart from the famous seaside shrine at Pyrgi, with its inscribed gold plaques, very few Etruscan sanctuaries can be so conclusively identified,” [University of Pennsylvania Museum Etruscan scholar Jean MacIntosh] Turfa said. “A study of the names of the dedicants will yield rich data on a powerful society where the nobility, commoners and even freed slaves could offer public vows and gifts.”

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