Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

3,500-year-old jewelry workshop illuminates dark age

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a 3,500-year-old jewelry workshop on the island of Failaka off the coast of Kuwait. Failaka was one of the major hubs of the Bronze Age Dilmun civilization, which at its peak is believed to have covered parts of modern-day Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and coastal Saudi Arabia. From around 2000 B.C., Dilmun held the monopoly on trade in the Persian Gulf. Failaka’s position at the entrance to Kuwait Bay gave it outsized strategic significance.

Dilmun’s ascendance wasn’t uninterrupted. Somewhere around the year 1700 B.C., the well-established trade network collapsed. The temples and cities were abandoned and the tombs of the kings looted. The next century is known as a dark age for Dilmun and Failaka because whatever the cause and effects of the collapse, there is little in the archaeological record that might shed light on the period.

The jewelry workshop is therefore something of a grail-shaped beacon. It was discovered in a building dated to the period between 1700 and 1600 B.C. and it contains very important garbage: small fragments of semi-precious stones including carnelian and jasper discarded as waste. Carnelian and jasper and not native to Failaka. These were imports, probably from Indian and Pakistan, which means trade across vast distances was still active during the so-called dark ages.

Kristoffer Damgaard, an assistant professor in the department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen, believes that Højlund and his colleagues have made an important discovery.

“I have no doubt that this is an important and historically crucial discovery,” said Damgaard. “These are the raw materials for luxury items for the wealthy that reveals the local elite had the option of long-distance trading in commodities such as precious stones.”

Damgaard said that the find is an “example of how far back globalisation extends”. Højlund believes that the stones show that Kuwait resumed trade during the dark period.

“Kuwait must have re-established the trade routes that collapsed around the year 1700 BC,” he said. “It bears witness to a renaissance in Bahrain and Failaka in around 1600 BC, when it resumed relations eastward to Pakistan and India.”

It’s also relevant to Failaka’s particular archaeological record because Dilmun was known for its circular stamped seals (as opposed to ones that were rolled like the cylinders of Mesopotamia). Dilmunian seals have been unearthed in India, Mesopotamia and in Failaka. A great number of them were found in a square stone building in the Al Hakim Palace and Tower Temple complex. They were of different shapes and sizes — circular, rectangular, square, cylinder scarab-shaped — and bore different inscriptions. The sheer numbers and variety of seals found on Failaka underscore that it was a pivot point of cultural exchange between the civilizations of the Gulf.

Danish archaeologists from the Moesgaard Museum, led by Peter Vilhelm Glob famed as the archaeologist who examined the bog body Tollund Man upon its discovery by peat cutters in 1950, were the first to systematically excavate the Persian Gulf countries in the southern Arabian peninsula beginning in 1953. Glob’s team found the first evidence of the Dilmun civilization in Bahrain and thought it was a local power. When they were invited to excavate Kuwait in 1958, they found Dilmun’s reach extended north as well, that they had colonized Failaka around 2,000 B.C. and used as a political, economic and religious center and headquarters for shipping. This most recent series of excavations on Failaka have been ongoing for nine years.

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Ancient skeleton found with tongue replaced by stone

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

Archaeologists studying a 3rd-4th century Romano-British skeleton unearthed in 1991 at Stanwick in Northamptonshire’s Nene river valley have discovered a unique feature: his tongue was severed and replaced with a flat, round stone. He was buried facedown, a practice believed to be a deliberate act of disrespect for the dead person, or a means of shunning the deceased to counter a perceived danger to the community. This is the first burial from the late Roman period, facedown or otherwise, discovered with a stone in place of the tongue.

Historic England, then called English Heritage, extensively excavated more than 30 hectares the Stanwick site in advance of gravel extraction from 1984 through 1992. They unearthed evidence of human occupation in the early Iron Age. There was an established settlement on the site by the late Iron Age. That developed into an agricultural village from the late 1st century A.D. to the third. The Romano-British village prospered, with increasingly complex stone buildings replacing the circular timber structures. There was a large villa built in the 4th century A.D. and it remained in use even as the rest of the village were abandoned. Bodies were buried outside the villa walls as late as the 6th century.

The eight years of excavations unearthed more than 11,000 individually documented finds, among them more than 3,500 coins, a large collection of stone sculptures believed to have come from two mausoleums, 2.5 tons of Romano-British pottery, 1,600 samples of organic materials (plant fibers, insects, pollen), 1.4 tons of animal bones, cremation burials, 112 complete or close to complete inhumation burials and eight skulls. Thirty-six of the inhumations and one of the isolated skulls were discovered in a cemetery west of the villa. There was very little material in the graves to date them. Pottery fill used in the burials ranges from the Iron Age to the 3rd-4th century which obviously doesn’t help narrow down dates. Two copper alloy bracelets found in one burial are of a type produced in the 5th century. Archaeologists concluded that the cemetery was likely in use from the 3rd to the 5th century.

It has taken decades for archaeologists to document, study and conserve all of this material, which is why they’ve only gotten to the stone tongue skeleton now. Osteological analysis found evidence of infection which supports the idea that the tongue was cut out since that kind of surgical intervention in our bacteria-infested mouths was almost certain to cause infection. The combination of facedown burial and stone might suggest the deceased was a criminal who was punished with tongue amputation.

Mays said: “There are Germanic law codes which talk about cutting people’s tongues out because they spread malicious accusations against other people. We’re looking into it at the moment, but I don’t know whether there are any Roman laws to that effect. Feedback I’ve had hasn’t indicated that there were … although that is of course still possible. We don’t know much about practices in Roman Britain as opposed to Rome itself.”

Asked how archaeologists know the tongue was amputated, Mays explained: “What gave us this idea is that there are other burials from Roman Britain where missing body parts in the grave are replaced by objects at the appropriate anatomical location. There are only about 10 of these that we’ve so far been able to identify. The great majority are decapitations, where you’ve got a stone or a pot placed where the head should be. We thought that, because of this, perhaps a stone could replace the tongue because it’s in the front part of the mouth where the tongue ought to be.” [...]

He added: “The whole idea of replacing a severed body part with an object is interesting in itself. It could be an attempt to complete an incomplete body. Or it could be an attempt to replace part of a body with something obviously inanimate, like a stone or a pot, to prevent the corpse from being complete.”

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Last coins excavated from huge Jersey Celtic hoard

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

Excavation of the enormous hoard of Celtic coins discovered by metal detectorists on the Channel Island of Jersey in 2012 is finally complete. Comprised of almost 70,000 coins, multiple gold torcs, glass beads and organic materials including plant fibers, a leather bag and a bag woven with silver and gold thread, the Le Catillon II treasure is the largest Celtic coin hoard ever discovered, six times larger than the runner-up.

When Reg Mead and Richard Miles found the hoard after 30 years of searching the same field because of a story they’d heard from the previous landowners daughter, they only dug down to the surface of the mass of coins before alerting Jersey Heritage so the professionals could take over the excavation. With such a great quantity of coins corroded together, archaeologists dug the entire hoard out of the ground in a single soil block measuring 4.5 x 2.6 feet and weighing three quarters of a ton.

The block was transported to the Jersey Museum where it was painstakingly excavated in the glass-walled laboratory in full public view. The museum’s conservator Neil Mahrer worked with a team of experts and volunteers to document, recover, identify and clean every single speck of archaeological material. For the first two years, they focused on removing and cleaning 2,000 loose coins on the surface of the block. In 2014 excavation of the coin mass began. The overwhelming majority of the coins were found to date to 30-50 B.C. and were made by the Coriosolite tribe of what is now Brittany.

Here’s a timelapse video showing the recovery of objects from the block during just one week, November 21-27, 2015.

Before a coin was removed from the block it was laser scanned so its exact position was recorded, and then once it was removed it was laser scanned on its own. One small subblock of coins was not excavated. Instead, it was snugly plastic wrapped and removed whole so that future conservators armed with new technologies have a clean, original section to study.

The scanning and removal of all the rest of the hoard took a lot of time. Four years after the find and almost three years after the excavation of the soil block began, Neil Mahrer scanned and removed the last ten coins of 70,000. Because the Jersey Museum team is composed of wise and provident people with a care for our nerdly needs, they had it filmed.

Neil Mahrer, who has led the conservation project from the beginning, said: “This is a significant milestone for the team. It has been painstaking but thoroughly intriguing work, which has delivered some very unexpected and amazing finds along the way.

“There is still plenty to do and I am sure the hoard will continue to surprise us as we clean and record the material.”

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Update on the Celtic Princess of the Danube

Friday, January 20th, 2017

In late 2010, archaeologists excavating a Celtic cemetery near the Iron Age settlement of Heuneburg unearthed an intact grave. The rest of the cemetery had been extensively looted, so when the team found a gold brooch inside a wooden burial chamber, they realized they had a very special find on their hand. The timbers were preserved in soil waterlogged by a small river that flowed nearby, which may also be the reason the grave was never pillaged. Its water-filled interior and boggy soil made it difficult for would-be thieves to access and loot. With a cemetery full of graves on drier land, looters picked the path of least resistance.

On December 28, 2010, the whole grave, encased in a 25-by-20 foot soil block weighing 80 tons, was raised and transported to the laboratory of the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments in Stuttgart. Archaeologists could now excavate the burial chamber in protected conditions, preserving the prehistoric timbers and any other organic remains, no matter how minute, and take all the time they needed for a thorough excavation. They discovered the contents of the tomb were extremely rich: more than 40 pieces of gold jewelry, more than 100 pieces of amber, plus jet, bronze and boar tusk jewelry and accessories, and an ornamental piece of armour for the head of a horse. This kind of armor was not produced in the Heuneburg area at this time. Part of it is consistent with work produced in northern Italy; some elements appear to be of southern Italian origin. It’s a testament to the variety and extent of the interregional trade in luxury goods during the Early Iron Age.

Most of the jewelry was adorned the skeletal remains of an adult woman. Her immense wealth and the wooden burial chamber, the only one of its kind every found, point to her being in the top echelon of Heuneburg society. The Celtic Princess of the Danube, as the press dubbed her, was between 30 and 40 years old when she died. The trunk of her skeleton was articulated and in place, while the skull was 10 feet away and the mandible in a corner of the chamber. Also in the grave were the remains of young girl around two or three years old. She too wore jewelry and because it is very similar to that found on the adult woman, so similar it was probably created by the same goldsmith, archaeologists believe they were related, likely mother and daughter. According to Dirk Krausse of the State Office for Cultural Heritage, Baden-Wuerttemberg, the matching jewels are “very special. We have no parallels to compare from the other graves. They’re only known up to now from these two graves.”

The style of the jewelry suggested a 7th century B.C. date for the grave. The preserved wooden timbers gave a more precise date: they were cut from a fir tree in 583 B.C. This was a prosperous time at Heuneburg. The Heuneburg hill fort dates to the Hallstatt period or Early Iron Age. The remains of wood and earthwork defensive fortifications from around 700 B.C. have been found, as have houses, burial mounds and expensive imported artifacts. A mud brick citadel wall on a massive limestone foundation 20 feet high was built around 600 B.C., a unique feature for Celtic settlements of this period. From 620 to 470 B.C., an estimated 10,000 people lived in Heuneburg which makes it by far the largest known prehistoric settlement north of the Alps as well as one of the oldest. More recent excavations at the foot of the hill have discovered a secondary housing site with homes grouped in walled compounds, an Iron Age suburban gated community, if you will. This is evidence in favor of classifying Heuneburg as not just a settlement, but an urban center. If so, it would make the hill fort the oldest urban site north of the Alps.

The remains of one other adult woman were found in the burial chamber. She had no jewelry, so researchers suspect she was a servant. At the moment it is not possible to determine whether and how the three individuals in the grave were related to each other.

Biological remains have been retrieved from the woman’s skeleton, but there are not enough remains from the child to do a DNA test, Krausse said. Only the enamel from the child’s teeth now remains.

At the moment, DNA sequencing technology is not advanced enough to work on the fragments of biological remains from the child’s grave. “But in 10 years, 20 years, maybe we will have the technology,” Krausse said.

The research into the Heuneburg grave and its contents is slated to continue until 2018. The latest findings will be published in the journal Antiquity.

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Oetzi’s last meal was mountain goat Speck

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Oetzi the Iceman was discovered protruding from the ice of a glacier in the Oetzal Alps of the South Tyrol by hikers on September 19th, 1991, and in the years since has become the most studied mummy in the world. Kept in a climate controlled chamber with a viewing window for visitors at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, Oetzi is under constant monitoring by researchers who use the latest and greatest technology to discover new information about his life and death with as little interference with the remains and artifacts as possible.

The question of what he ate in the day or days before someone shot an arrow in his back severing his subclavian artery — he bled to death within minutes — was previously addressed by analysis of the fecal material found in his bowels. They contained the remains of red deer meat and some kind of cereal eaten at least four hours before his murder. In 2011, microbiologists at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano reexamined CT scans from 2005 and discovered something previous researchers had missed: Oetzi’s stomach. It had shifted north, which is why it was missed the first time, and it appeared to be full.

A sample of the stomach contents contained animal fibers which DNA analysis identified as Alpine ibex meat. This was his last meal, ingested 30 to 120 minutes before he died. The meat of the Alpine ibex was traditionally believed to have medicinal properties, and since Oetzi suffered from chronic joint pain, Lyme disease, periodontal disease, ulcers and a panoply of non-fatal wounds including knife cuts and blunt force trauma to his teeth received in the days and hours before his death, he had more than enough reasons to seek out healing foods.

New research has been able to narrow down how the Ibex meat was prepared.

Mummy specialist Albert Zink from the European Academy of Bolzano said he was able to analyse the nanostructure of meat fibres from a mountain goat found in Ötzi’s stomach – indicating that the meat was raw and had been dry-cured, and not cooked or grilled, which would have weakened the fibres.

He added that Ötzi did not have a proper hunting bow with him, and probably carried the dried meat with him from his home, as raw meat would have quickly gone bad.

Further analysis of his stomach contents showed that he had not eaten cheese or dairy products, just meat. “It seems probable that his last meal was very fatty, dried meat – perhaps a type of Stone Age Speck or bacon,” Zink said. As Ötzi had hiked down from the South Tyrolean side of the Alps, it’s likely his provisions came from there.

Speck is a famous local delicacy in the Tyrol. Cured with salt and spices and cold-smoked, Tyrolean Speck goes back to the 13th century. Little did we know that it was being made from wild mountain goats in the area 4,000 years before it was made from the hind legs of pigs. I’m not sure how fatty ibex meat can possibly be, though. These animals are accustomed to scrambling up and down the Alps, after all, not chilling in a wallow.

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From the annals of there’s no accounting for taste

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, reopened in September of 2015 after a five-year renovation that fixed structural issues, redesigned all the galleries and storage facilities, updated the climate control systems and technology. The refurbished museum was a huge hit with critics and visitors alike, but people who visited before last October of who stuck to the exhibition galleries have missed a long-lost gem: a 3rd century mosaic floor from Antioch in the Loctite Lobby of the Aetna Theater that was hidden for decades under atrocious convention hall carpeting.

The 13-by-10 foot mosaic is composed of limestone and multicolored glass tiles. A white border with small black stepped diamonds surrounds panels of theatrical masks, male and female, comic and tragic, young and old. Deep cuboids in perspective outline the mask panels. What was once the central panel is now almost entirely gone. Only the bottom left corner depicting a pair of sandaled feet on a footstool survives.

It was discovered in Room 2 of a private dwelling known as the House of the Mysteries of Isis because two of the mosaics in the house show scenes from Isian ritual. It was excavated in the 1930s by an archaeological team led by Princeton University which excavated ancient Antioch (modern-day Antakya, Turkey) from 1932 through 1939. As per the partage system which was customary at the time, the spoils of archaeological digs were divided among interested parties — involved institutions, financial supporters, local government. More than 300 mosaics and untold numbers of artifacts were unearthed during the seven years of Antioch excavations. Princeton’s share is now in the University Art Museum.

The Wadsworth was not one of the interested parties. The mosaic was purchased for $300 in 1940 by Atheneum director Chick Austin and was installed in the theater lobby. It had been raised in two sections back in the 1930s. When they were embedded in the terrazzo floor, the sections were put back together in a configuration that minimized gaps but paid no heed to the original logic and composition of the piece. Then, for reasons unknown and unfathomable today, the whole floor was covered in hideous wall-to-wall carpeting in the 1960s or 70s. Granted, those were dark days for interior decorating, but this seems extreme even for the era of avocado appliances.

“People knew it was there, but as the years went by it was less on everybody’s radar,” conservator Alan Kosanovich said.

Last October, the carpeting was pulled up “to give the lobby a fresher look,” he said. The mosaic and the terrazzo floor surrounding it were revealed. After Kosanovich cleaned and toned the piece, a railing was installed around it. Now, Atheneum visitors can see it, but not walk on it. [...]

The mosaic can be seen by all museum visitors, although those not going to a film screening or a live performance might not think to go to the basement theater to see it. It’s worth a trek down the stairs, to see an intriguing piece of ancient history, which sat ignored for decades under a common carpet.

Getting covered by hideous 1970s motel carpet isn’t the worst treatment received by an Antioch mosaic. In 1951 Princeton installed a small rectangular mosaic, once the border of a larger piece, raised during the university’s Antioch excavations in the vestibule of the Architecture Laboratory. Out in the open where an endless parade of students and faculty tramped on it daily and it was at the mercy of the vagaries of New Jersey weather for decades. You’d think an ancient mosaic literally at the threshold of an architecture lab would be handled with some basic level of competence, but you would be wrong. Every time some of the tesserae got loose, they just slapped a layer of cement on top.

Sixty years after it was installed, the mosaic finally got some attention. Conservators removed it in July 2011 and transported it to the Art Conservation Group’s Brooklyn studio for cleaning, consolidation and restoration. It was reinstalled, indoors this time, at the School of Architecture on March 19th, 2013. The removal and reinstallation was filmed, and it’s an interesting look not just as modern conservation methods, but also at how these mosaics were raised in the first place.

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Roman chariot model reveals trick of the racing trade

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

A study of a bronze model of a Roman racing chariot dating to the 1st-2nd c. A.D. has revealed new information on how the vehicles were built. The model, recovered from the Tiber in the 1890s, is now in the collection of the British Museum. It is a biga, a two-horse chariot, although one of the original horse figures is missing, as is the charioteer. The piece is a petite 10 inches long and eight inches high, but its significance is as oversized as the model is small.

While the remains of close to 300 ancient Etruscan and Italian war and ceremonial chariots have been discovered in funerary contexts, no racing chariots from Republican or Imperial Rome have ever been found. Written descriptions and visual representations are all we have to go on to understand how they were constructed. Most of the chariots depicted in monumental art are triumphal chariots which were used in solemn processionals and bore only a superficial resemblance (ie, number of wheels, long axle) to the racing chariot. Racing chariots are depicted in carved reliefs, frescoes and mosaics of circus race scenes.

The little Tiber model, with its precision details and proportions, is the greatest source of information we have about the Roman racing chariot. It was a luxury item, the kind of toy chariot that only the very wealthy could afford. (Nero was fond of toy chariots, according to Suetonius, although his were ivory.) The wheels, now fixed, turned on the axle so it could be vigorously vroom-vroomed by its owner. Its creator certainly knew a great deal about chariot construction.

It has a long, straight axle, small wheels to help keep the base stable around tight corners, a small body, low to the ground, just big enough to fit one man snugly. The yoke pole has a decorative ram’s head at the end of it. The front of the car wasn’t the solid, highly decorated panel reaching Charlton Heston’s armpits seen in big screen versions of Roman chariot races. The car was basically a frame, bent pieces of wood lashed together. The front had a piece of leather or fabric tied to the frame, while the floor was woven straps which provided a little much-needed springiness for the charioteer.

Close examination of the model in the new study found that the right wheel, and only the right wheel, had a thin iron rim surrounding the wood.

“The basic wheels were always of wood, animal hide glue, and rawhide strips (at critical joints) that tighten upon drying, like clamps,” explained author Bela Sandor, professor emeritus of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Any iron tire for racing would be a very thin strip of iron on the outside of the wooden rim, best when heat-shrunk on the wood, to consolidate the whole wheel.

Adding the strip of iron to the right wheel improved a charioteer’s chances of winning a race to roughly 80 percent, according to a study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Roman Archaeology. [...]

Since it was easier to guide the horses into left-turning bends, most races ran anti-clockwise. “Indeed, the right side tire works best in oval-shaped arenas if the turning is always leftward,” Sandor said.

Sandor explained that some of the Romans strengthened the right wheels only because all chariots leaned to the right and overloaded just the right wheels during the left turns. “This makes total sense to everybody who understands the dynamics of a turning vehicle. It’s a common sensation to people riding in a fast-turning vehicle; standing and lurching sideways in a turning bus is a good example,” Sandor said.

The right-side iron tire didn’t necessarily make the chariot move faster. Its job was reinforcement, to keep the wheel under highest pressure from collapse and thus prevent disaster on the track. The right wheel failed far more than the left so it needed the metallic boost. The left wheel didn’t need the added support and the additional weight of a second iron rim would have slowed down chariot enough to make a victory in the circus all but impossible.

“A racing chariot with an iron tire on the right wheel only was the best compromise in terms of safety, durability and winning probability,” Sandor said. “As the finest available representation of a Roman racing chariot, the Tiber model gives us a glimpse into the Romans’ probabilistic thinking for winning races and bets.”

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Anglo-Saxon settlement found in Cambridge

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

Artifacts from an early Anglo-Saxon settlement have been unearthed at the site of a future housing development in Cherry Hinton, a suburb of Cambridge. Developers Weston Homes hired Oxford Archaeology East to excavate the construction site on the corner of Hatherdene Close and Coldham’s Lane after test pits identified an area of particular archaeological interest. The excavation discovered architectural remains of a village and a range of artifacts from the utilitarian to the rarified.

The team unearthed expensive, high-end jewelry including brooches, multi-colored glass, amber beads, rings and hairpins from the 6th century. There were tools including small knives and larger weapons, and intact pottery vases and bowls. The greatest stand-out piece is a glass vessel known as a claw beaker, so named because of the H.R. Giger-like claw-shaped handles attached to the conical walls. The glass is tinted amber or brown. These vases were very highly prized, probably imported from Germany, and have mainly been found as grave goods in 5th and 6th century Anglo-Saxon burials.

Duncan Hawkins, Head of Archaeology and Build Heritage for CgMs, said: “Evidence of the time period 5th to 7th century AD is almost non-existent so this gives us a highly important window into understanding how people lived in that era, their trade activities and behaviours.

“The academic value of this collection is therefore immeasurable. The site fell out of use in the 7th century but we discovered evidence of 8th century Middle Saxon activity including post-built structures, possibly workshops and livestock pens.

“Pits dug in this attest to local industrial activity and further processing of soil samples should help us understand what these were used for.”

The excavation also unearthed Roman dishware, early Roman kilns and a network of Late Iron Age and Roman boundary ditches. After the Middle Saxon settlement, there was a manor house built on the site in the 9th or 10th century. In the 11th century, Hinton Manor was one of several Cambridgeshire holdings of Edith the Fair, aka Edith Swanneck, first wife of Harold II. They were married in accordance with the more danico, a traditional Norse form of marriage, which is why nobody raised the bigamy issue when Harold married a Welsh princess in a Christian ceremony in 1066. Edith is best known for having identified Harold’s mutilated body after the Battle of Hastings, ostensibly from marks that only she knew he had on his chest. (One 19th century poet alleged they were hickeys.)

The town of Cherry Hinton appears in the Domesday Book (1086) listed as “Hintone: Count Alan. 4 mills.” Count Alan was Alan Rufus, a kinsman of William the Conqueror’s who fought with him at the Battle of Hastings. After the Norman Conquest, he took Hinton Manor from Edith. He got the lion’s share of her properties, in fact, sweeping up all but one of her Cambridgeshire estates.

The housing development of 60 homes will still be built on the site. All the artifacts have been recovered. They will be documented, conserved and exhibited in local museums.

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Latin city mythically founded by Aeneas opens to public

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

The ancient Latin city of Lavinium, according to legend founded by Aeneas, son of Venus, hero of Troy and ancestor of Julius Caesar, has some of the most significant archaeological remains predating the ascendance of Rome. Less than 20 miles from the modern city of Rome, the archaeological site was first excavated in the mid-1950s by Professor Ferdinando Castagnoli from the University of La Sapienza’s Topographical Institute. He and his archaeologist colleague Lucos Cozza unearthed a tumulus 60 feet in diameter richly furnished with more than 60 grave goods dating to the 7th century B.C., including a chariot, weapons, objects made of precious metals and vases for the funerary banquet. It was modified in the 4th century B.C.; a square room with a large tufa door was added. Research found that the Romans called this tumulus the Heroon of Aeneas (a heroon is a shrine dedicated to a hero, usually believed to be built over his tomb or to hold his relics).

Later excavations discovered what would become known as the Sanctuary of the XIII Altars, a cult center where 13 altars made of soft volcanic tufa were carefully lined up for religious rituals. A 14th altar was recently unearthed, and all appear to have been made between the 6th and the 4th century B.C. Archaeologists believe Lavinium was the main religious center of Latium at that time, and that the altars represent each of the important Latin cities. Excavations also unearthed an archaic temple to Minerva and two kilns used to make terracotta votive statuary.

Archaeological evidence indicates the town is very ancient indeed, going back to the 12th century B.C., the Bronze Age. It expanded in the 8th century B.C. and achieved its greatest size in the 6th century B.C. It began to decline in the 5th century, possibly after suffering damage in an earthquake, and by the 2nd century was no longer a religious center for the region having been eclipsed by its putative descendant, Rome.

The legend connecting Lavinium to Aeneas and the future capital of an empire only grew in prominence as the town itself shrank into a sleepy suburb of Rome. After years of exciting adventures, Aeneas landed in Latium where the gods and his dead father Anchises had told him he would found the greatest of all cities and sire the greatest of all lineages. Latinus, king of the Latins, welcomed Aeneas and offered him the hand of his daughter Lavinia in marriage. He accepted, married the princess and founded a new city which he named after her. His son Ascanius founded the town of Alba Longa where he and his descendants ruled for generation upon generation. The twins Romulus and Remus were born to one of those descendants, Rhea Silvia, courtesy of divine impregnation. Then there was the whole she-wolf thing and the fratricide and the Rape of the Sabine Women and voila! Rome.

The founding of ancient Rome traced to the heroes of Troy has come down to us from historian writing hundreds of years after the events they purported to describe. Early Greek historians proposed a bewildering combination of founding legends, the earliest of whom was Helanicus of Lesbos (5th century B.C.) who claimed Aeneas founded the city of Rome itself and named it after a Trojan woman. The oldest surviving source on the Lavinium version is Quintus Fabius Pictor, a third century B.C. senator from the patrician gens Fabia who is considered the first Roman historian, but all we have of his history of Rome are a few quotations and references cited by later writers including Polybius, Livy and Plutarch. The first book of Livy’s great compendium of all of Roman history, Ab Urbe Condita (“From the Founding of the City”), written between 27 and 9 B.C., recounts the story of Aeneas’ arrival in Latium, his marriage to Lavinia and his founding of Lavinium. By Livy’s time, this was the story that had stuck. Livy’s contemporary Virgil wrote about it in The Aeneid which sealed its popularity for 2,000 years.

Despite the endurance of the legend, the ancient city itself faded as the Western Empire fell apart. Around 1200, the walled medieval burg of Pratica di Mare was built over the remains of Lavinium’s ancient acropolis. It was owned by Benedictine monks until the 14th century when it passed into the hands of a succession of noble Roman families. The last of these was the Borghese family which took ownership of Practica di Mare in 1617. It is still their private property. They have an obligation to maintain the medieval town and any dispositions made regarding the archaeological site and the nature preserve that surrounds it must go through the Borgheses.

Because of this, it has been very difficult for people to get access to the ancient remains. On very rare occasions they would be open to the public, but otherwise arranging a visit to the altars or the heroon took a lot of jumping through behind-the-scenes hoops. In 2005, the Lavinium Archaeological Museum opened, giving tourists a chance to enjoy some of the archaeological treasures of Lavinium. It focuses on the legendary connection to Aeneas. Video installations tell the story of his eventful voyage after the fall of Troy and follow a virtual priest through the Sanctuary of the Altars. The terracotta statues made in the kilns are on display, as is an archaic statue of Minerva found at her temple and the tufa door from the Heroon of Aeneas.

Now a new agreement has been struck between the Commune of Pomezia, the Archaeological Superintendency for metropolitan Rome and the Borghese family to open the archaeological site of Lavinium to visitors. January 7th was the first day. It’s a wonderful opportunity for anyone in Rome or environs to see ancient Latin archaeology before the distinction between Rome and its neighbors was blurred by empire and expansion. You can’t find this kind of thing in Rome. Archaeology from the legendary days, even from the kings and early Republic, is all but non-existent.

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2,300-year-old Chinese sword found still sharp and shiny

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

Archaeologists have unveiled an ancient bronze sword from the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) that is still sharp and glossy after 2,300 years. The sword was discovered in tomb No. 18 in Xinyang city in China’s central Henan Province. It was found still snug in its scabbard inside a wooden coffin. Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology filmed the reveal of the sword and released it on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo.

As the moniker suggests, the Warring States period saw constant wars between the seven leading states of fragmented Zhou dynasty China, plus a handful of smaller states pulled into the conflict at different times. Most of what is today Henan Province was one of the minor states in the struggle, its cities allied with the larger states. By the end of the period, states large and small had all been conquered by one of the leading seven: the Qin state under its king Ying Zheng. When the last competing state, Qi, fell to Ying Zheng, the former king of Qin became the emperor Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of a unified China and founder of the Qin Dynasty.

The sword is a jian, a double-edged straight sword first documented in Chinese sources from the 7th century B.C. They were first made in bronze, then as Chinese metallurgy advanced, iron and steel. The Warring States period was a transitional era for the jian; swords of bronze, iron and steel have been found from the period. Bronze jian were made with different alloys, their properties employed to the weapon’s best advantage. The central spine and core of the sword was made with high copper content bronze, making it pliant but strong and less likely to break. The edges were made from high tin content bronze for optimal sharpness.

If it seems incongruous for a 2,300-year-old bronze sword to be so shiny and sharp after all this time, consider the Sword of Goujian which dates to the Spring and Autumn period (771-403 B.C.). It was found in 1965 in a tomb where it had been submerged in water for at least 2,000 years, and yet, when the blade was unsheathed from its wood lacquer scabbard, it shone like gold and its edge was still keen. Chemical analysis found traces of sulfur which combats tarnish.

The recently discovered sword will be thoroughly studied, documented and conserved. Testing will hopefully answer questions about its composition and confirm its authenticity. There’s a significant market for fake “ancient” jian, and the condition of this sword is so extraordinary there have been some justifiably skeptical reactions on Weibo. Henan Archaeology officials insist it is authentic, discovered undisturbed in its proper archaeological context. Once it is stabilized, it will go on display, likely in the Henan Museum in Zhengzhou.

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