Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Met saves Treasure of Harageh from auction sale

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has stepped in to save an ancient Egyptian collection of artifacts from dispersal into the auction void. The Treasure of Harageh, a group of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry and travertine vessels excavated in 1913-14 from Tomb 124 at Harageh near the city of Faiyum in Middle Egypt, was supposed to go under the hammer at the Bonhams Antiquities sale on October 2nd. At the last minute, the lot was withdrawn and Bonhams announced it had negotiated a private sale for an undisclosed amount to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This was a happy result for a controversial sale. The controversy wasn’t the usual kind. There was no trumped up “Swiss private collection” provenance; the ownership history was clear and unblemished, the publication record extensive. It was the seller raising eyebrows: the American Institute for Archaeology’s St. Louis Society. The AIA is opposed on principle to the sale of antiquities, believing they belong in the care of experts who will conserve them and make them available to the public for educational purposes. The St. Louis Society is an independent non-profit, however, and its charter with the AIA only explicitly prohibits the sale or purchase of undocumented artifacts, so no matter how horrified the national organization was, it could not prevent the sale.

The artifacts have belonged to the St. Louis Society since they were first excavated by a British School of Archaeology team led by Reginald Engelbach under the direction of pioneering archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie. The Society helped fund the excavation. In return, they received this exceptional group of artifacts. There are five travertine objects, four of them vessels, one of them a cosmetic spoon with a handle in the shape of an ankh. The jewelry group is seven cowrie shell-shaped pendants made of silver, a rare material worth more than gold in the Middle Kingdom, 14 real sea shell pendants mounted in silver and 11 silver pieces inlaid with various hardstones that probably were part of a pectoral plaque.

It’s the 11 pectoral pieces that date the artifacts. Individual pieces are designed as hieroglyphs that spell the name of Pharoah Senusret II, the fourth pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty who ruled from 1897-1878 B.C. One of the 11 is also the standout piece of the collection. It’s a unique jewel in the shape of a bee. What makes it unique is that it’s three-dimensional, with inlays on both sides and even visible from the top. There is no other 3D jewel known from the Middle Kingdom. The bee, the real shell pendants (the first known instance of actual shells being used in Egyptian jewelry) and the ankh spoon are all unique and of major historical significance.

For many years the collection was kept at the St. Louis Art Museum. In 2011 it was moved to Washington University in St. Louis and two years ago it wound up in private storage at a cost of $2,000 a year. It was that storage fee and the conservation challenge that drove the St. Louis Society to sell the Treasure of Harageh. Howard Wimmer, secretary of the St. Louis Society, said: “If there had been any way that we could have reasonably kept these items in St. Louis, we never would have pursued this course. One way or the other, we had to find a new home.”

It’s that one way they chose that was the sticking point. The AIA might not have had grounds to block the sale, but it wasn’t the only interested party.

Alice Stevenson, curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London, said a sale to a private buyer would have violated an agreement between the museum’s namesake explorer and the St. Louis group that the antiquities be distributed to public museums, accessible to both researchers and the public.

“Museums and archaeologists are stewards of the past,” she said. “They should not sell archaeological items in their collections for profit.”.

Thanks to the Met, which is glad to join this treasure to other Harageh artifacts in its permanent collection, the sale of these antiquities won’t see them dispersed contextless into private collections out of the reach of the public and scholars. Unfortunately, there was one lot from the St. Louis Society’s Harageh artifacts, a Tenth-Eleventh Dynasty travertine head rest (2150-1990 B.C.) that did not get an eleventh hour reprieve. It sold to an unknown buyer for £27,500 ($44,182). I wonder if the Petrie Museum is aware of this sale. It seems like they might have legal grounds to void it.

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First coin in a hoard of 22,000 is one millionth PAS find

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has reached a milestone in a most dramatic fashion: its one millionth recorded find is a 4th century Roman coin proved to be the first in a hoard of 22,000 coins. It was found on November 16th of last year by semi-retired builder and metal detector hobbyist Laurence Egerton on the Clinton Devon Estates, near Seaton Down, Devon. He found the first two coins just under the surface, then dug deeper. His shovel came up overflowing with similar coins.

Here’s video his wife shot of his discovery:

Egerton alerted the Devon PAS Finds Liaison Officer and the county archaeologist. He was told to remove all the loose objects and refill the hole while the Devon County Council arranged a professional excavation. Just to be sure nobody else interfered with the hoard, Egerton slept in his car next to it for three nights. Between November 18th and 22nd, contract archaeologists excavated an area of three square meters around the find spot.

They found thousands of coins stuck together in one main group in a small pit. There are two concreted lumps within the main group which may indicate several deposits were made over time. The lozenge shape of the main deposit suggests they were buried in something flexible like a bag rather than, say, a chest. Underneath the coins fragments of what may be a fabric of some kind were recovered. They’ll be tested to determine whether they could be the remains of the bag that once held the coins.

The Seaton Down Hoard was transferred to the British Museum where the coins were lightly cleaned so they could be valued in compliance with the Treasure Act. The total weight of the coins is 68 kg (150 pounds). They range in date from the 260s A.D. to the 340s with 99% of them struck between 330 and 341 A.D. in the reigns of Constantine and his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. The most recent coins date to 347-8 A.D. from the joint reign of Constantius II and Constans, the latter of whom was the last legitimate Roman emperor to visit Britain in 343 A.D.

Almost all of the coins are a very common type known as a nummus made of copper-alloy with a small amount of silver. (The handful of 3rd century coins are radiates.) Most of them, more than 11,000, were struck at the mint in Augusta Treverorum (Trier), with 3500 struck in Lugdunum (Lyon) and 2000 at Arelate (Arles). In total an impressive 17 mints are represented in the hoard, and there are some ancient forgeries of indeterminate origin too.

The millionth PAS find, the first coin Egerton unearthed, is a nummus struck in 332 A.D. at the Lyon mint to celebrate Constantine’s founding of the new imperial capital of Constantinople. The obverse of the coin features a personification of Constantinopolis, a laureate and helmeted bust with a scepter over the left shoulder; the reverse depicts winged Victory standing on ship’s prow, holding a scepter of spear in front of her and a shield behind.

Coin hoards from the reigns of Constantine and his sons are among the most commonly found in Britain, but Seaton Down is notable both for its large size (the fifth largest ever found in Britain) and because it was excavated and recorded by archaeologists. All the other big Constantinian hoards, like the one of 22,670 coins unearthed at Nether Compton, Dorset, in 1989, were never recorded, analyzed or studied before being returned to the finder who broke up the collection and sold the coins piecemeal. Copper coins weren’t considered Treasure Trove by the laws at that time, and the local museum that kept the hoard until it was returned to finder just didn’t have the resources to study it properly.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was founded in 1997 to help prevent that kind of loss to the nation’s scholarship cultural heritage. In this case it has functioned as planned, giving archaeologists the opportunity to remove the coins in solid blocks so that even tiny fragments can be analyzed for key information by an institution (the British Museum) that has the technology, expertise and funding to thoroughly study and document the find.

The hoard was officially declared treasure this month. Next on the schedule for the Seaton Down Hoard is for its market value to be determined by the Valuation Committee. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter, the museum in Devon closest to the find, wants to get a jump on the process. They’ve launched a fundraising campaign so they’ll have the money to pay the finder and landowner the amount of the valuation and keep the hoard together in the county where it was discovered. You can donate online here.

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Do you recall the 1954 London Mithraeum dig?

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

It all began in 1952 when a team of archaeologists from the Roman and Medieval London Excavation Council dug a few exploratory trenches on a construction site in central London’s Walbrook Square. Victorian buildings on the site had been all but leveled by German bombs during the Blitz. The ruins were slated to be demolished a new office block for an insurance company to be built at the location. The only reason archaeologists were there is that the lost river Walbrook had once flowed through the area so the site was surveyed to record alluvial deposits that would establish how the Walbrook changed over time. Informative, but far from glamorous.

For two years the excavation, led by Welsh archaeologist Professor William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams, puttered along drawing no interest whatsoever. They were almost done when the team unearthed the walls and floors of a stone building from the Roman period. They thought it was a private villa or maybe a public building until in mid-September they found an altar at one end that identified the structure as a temple. As historically significant a find as it was, it was still slated to be destroyed to make way for the ugly new grey box of offices.

Then on Saturday, September 18th, 1954, the last day of the excavation, a marble head of the god Mithras, identifiable by his characteristic Phrygian cap, was found. The handsome young deity would have gone unnoticed too if it hadn’t been for a newspaper photographer from nearby Fleet Street who was on the spot and took some pictures. They were printed the next day in The Sunday Times and caused an immediate sensation.

For weeks it was front page news. Immense crowds flocked to the site to see the temple, an estimated 400,000 people in total. The question of the temple’s dire fate was now a national scandal. It was debated in Parliament and twice in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. The problem was nobody had the money to preserve the temple in situ. The government was broke and the developers couldn’t afford to move the planned building. Ultimately a compromise was worked out: the Ministry of Works would fund additional excavation and the developers would pay to remove the temple and reconstruct it at ground level for public display.

The extended excavations unearthed more sculptures — a group including Minerva, the hand of Mithras and a head of Serapis that were deliberately buried under the nave perhaps to keep them safe from depredation or as a respectful deposition when the temple was rebuilt and re-dedicated to the god Bacchus. Pottery from the earliest layers indicates the Mithraeum was first built around 240 A.D. It was extensively reconstructed in 350 A.D. after which it remained in use until the end of the Roman period.

The sculptures were conserved and put on display in the Museum of London where they joined a relief of Mithras slaying the Bull of Heaven that had been unearthed at Walbrook in 1889. The relief has an inscription that may shed light on the temple’s construction: “Ulpius Silvanus / Emeritus Leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae) / Votum Solvit / Factus Arausione” meaning “Ulpius Silvanus / veteran of the Second August Legion / paid his vow / made at Orange.” “Made” in this case doesn’t refer to the relief sculpture, but rather to Ulpius Silvanus himself, either he was discharged (made a veteran) or initiated into the Mithraic religion (made a devotee of Mithras). The Walbrook Mithraeum itself could be the vow he paid.

The temple was rebuilt in 1962 on Queen Victoria Street, 300 feet or so from its find site and 30 feet above its original depth. The ancient masonry was put back together using modern cement mortar on a crazy-paving floor. The original floor was wood. We know this because some of the joists were found during the excavation thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged Walbrook soil. It looked … weird, to put it generously, out of place and squat and not at all like it had looked in situ. Grimes said the 1962 rebuild was “virtually meaningless as a reconstruction of a mithraeum.”

In December 2010, Bloomberg LP bought the Walbrook Square site to build its new European headquarters. The archaeological survey has retread some of the same ground as the Grimes excavation but has found oh so much more amazingness. The new complex will integrate the archaeological discoveries into the construction, and the Temple of Mithras will be part of that plan. In 2011, stonemasons carefully dismantled the reconstructed temple, removing the 1960s concrete and carefully storing the original Roman stone and tile. It will be rebuilt with a care for authenticity this time, installed 25 feet below ground level in the same spot where it was found. The underground space will be a public exhibition area in the Bloomberg building. The building is scheduled to be complete in 2017.

The Museum of London is collaborating with Bloomberg to ensure the Walbrook Mithraeum re-reconstruction is done properly this time. The museum has extensive records from 1954, but they have no extant color images of the temple in situ. In order to get as many details as possible about the temple, both for the reconstruction and to more thoroughly document this exceptional find while people who remember it are still around, the museum is collecting oral histories, pictures, home movies, ephemera about the 1954 dig.

They’re also hoping someone somewhere may have some actual pieces of Roman stone or mortar. At the time, construction workers and visitors were known to have pilfered themselves some souvenirs, so there could well be something very important cluttering up people’s attics that they may not even realize. Anything that reveals the original color of the stones, bricks, tiles and mortar would be very helpful. The oral histories, images, etc. will be included as part of the Temple exhibition in the Bloomberg building.

If you have any memories, information, images or souvenirs of the 1954 excavation, email the Museum of London at oralhistory@mola.org.uk or call them at 020 7410 2266 during office hours.

Now, thanks to the ever-delightful Pathé archive, please enjoy two newsreels about the dig. The first is a short clip of the excavation site. The fellow with the glasses is Harold Plenderleith, a pioneering conservator and archaeologist who part of the team who excavated King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Sir Leonard Woolley’s digs at Ur, and the Sutton Hoo ship burial. How’s that for an archaeological trifecta?

A more detailed look at the sculptures recovered and their conservation:

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Body found near a previously-found one in Rossan Bog

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Workers for Ireland’s semi-state peat harvesting company Bord Na Móna discovered an ancient bog body in Rossan Bog last Saturday, September 13th. As per protocol, when the remains were found, work stopped and the gardai (police) were called. When the gardai determined that it was not a contemporary crime scene, they quickly informed the National Museum of Ireland which has the largest collection of bog bodies of any museum in the world.

Rossen Bog straddles two counties. The partial remains — only the lower leg, foot bones and some flesh were recovered — were found close to the border with County Westmeath, two miles from the town of Kinnegad where another bog body was found in December of 2012. Later named Moydrum Man, the 2012 body was radiocarbon dated to 700 – 300 B.C.

Maeve Sikora of the Irish Antiquities Division, who led the Museum’s fieldwork team said the fact that two bodies were unearthed in such close proximity to each other makes the find even more exciting.

“A lower leg of an individual was discovered. We don’t yet know how old it dates back to or whether it was male or female. We will be carrying out tests over the coming months to determine more information about this body but because it was the lower leg this could prove difficult,” Ms Sikora told the Westmeath Examiner today.

“Because it was found at the site where another bog body was found two years ago it makes it all the more interesting,” she continued. “The 2012 find dates back to at least 700 – 300 BC, so it was prehistoric. That’s why it’s unusual to find two in the one place extremely close together and it makes it all the more exciting because it shows that it was an area where a lot of activity took place.”

National Museum of Ireland archaeologists and conservators excavated the find site over the weekend and the removed the bog body to its conservation laboratory at Collins Barracks, Dublin. Even though little remains of the body, the oxygen-free environment of peat uniquely preserves organic materials that decay rapidly in other contexts. Thus, the bones and tissues that have been recovered may prove a rich source of information about the deceased. Having another body discovered nearby to compare it to will shed rare light on he Bronze Age life and religious practices in the area.

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Archaeology students find Roman fort on the Rhine

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

An educational dig by the Goethe University Institute of Archaeology in the city of Gernsheim on the east bank of the Rhine in Hesse, Germany, has unearthed the remains of a Roman fort. Supported by professional archaeologists from the university and Hessian State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments, 15 students spent five weeks excavating a small double lot in the middle of a residential neighborhood that was one of the last pieces of undeveloped property in the town. They found the first evidence of a late 1st century, early 2nd century fort.

Although Roman artifacts have been discovered in Gernsheim since the 19th century, construction exploded in the 20th century leaving few sites unmolested for a proper excavation. Archaeologists weren’t even certain what kind of Roman settlement was on the site. The artifacts indicated that there was at least a vicus, a small village, in Gernsheim, which often served as the civilian settlement for the families and support staff of a military fort. Actual physical remains proving the presence of a fort had yet to be discovered.

The student dig hit paydirt. They found two V-shaped trenches (fossae) used in Roman fort construction as obstacles to approach and the base of ramparts formed by the dug-up soil. They also found postholes from one of the wooden watchtowers placed along the fort walls, and a few stones from the lowest layer of a foundation that once supported a structure pillaged in the post-Roman period for its masonry.

The trenches turned out to be a motherlode not just because they’re evidence of the fort, but because of what they contained.

An unusually large number of finds were made. This is because the Roman troops dismantled the fort and filled in the ditches when they left. In the process they disposed of a lot of waste, especially in the inner ditch. “A bonanza for us,” according to Prof. Dr. Hans-Markus von Kaenel from the Goethe University Institute of Archaeology. “We filled box after box with shards of fine, coarse and transport ceramics; dating them will allow us to determine when the fort was abandoned with greater accuracy than was possible before.”

One of the artifacts recovered was nothing short of a struck of luck: it’s a brick fragment stamped with the name and number of a legion: Legio XXII Primigenia Pia Fidelis, an elite legion named after and dedicated to the goddess of fortune, Fortuna Primigenia. Finding an artifact that announces the precise legion that once occupied the fort seems like Primigenia is still looking out for her guys.

Caligula first sent Legio XXII to Germany in 39 A.D. It garrisoned the fort in Mainz (Mogontiacum) which was one of a series of forts charged with guarding the Rhine border of the Roman province of Germania Superior. The fort in Gernsheim was also part of the Limes Germanicus, and served as a strategically significance launching pad for missions east of the Rhine. Its central location between two important Roman cities — Mainz 30 miles to the northwest and Ladenburg 30 miles south — made it an important link in the infrastructure chain. The cohort (500 soldiers) of Legio XXII was stationed at Gernsheim between 70/80 and 110/120 A.D.

Another artifact found suggests a cavalry presence in the fort as well. It’s a large (about five inches wide by three inches high) bronze pendant that Roman cavalry used to decorate their horses’ harnesses. The pendant indicates that there was a mounted squadron (cohors equitata) attached to the cohort or maybe even a pure cavalry unit (ala) at the Gernsheimer fort.

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Neolithic necropolis with 20 monumental tombs found in France

Monday, September 15th, 2014

A team of archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventative Archaeological Research (INRAP) has unearthed a vast Middle Neolithic necropolis with 20 monumental tombs in Fleury-sur-Orne, in the northwestern French state of Lower Normandy. Dating to around 4,500 B.C., the tombs are of the Passy kind, named after the municipality in Burgundy 70 miles southeast of Paris where the these long funerary structures were found and radiocarbon dated for the first time.

The Fleury-sur-Orne monuments range in length from 40 feet to 985 feet and are enclosed on both sides by ditches 8 inches to 50 feet wide. The ditches may have contained palisades made from trees felled by stone adzes. The earth from the ditches was piled up in the center of the structure forming a mound that housed one or more graves of important people. Many of these mounds have eroded away or been destroyed by agriculture, development or war. One of the 20 structures excavated at Fleury, however, is intact and in excellent condition. The original walls of stacked grass turf are extant if somewhat reduced. Archaeologists believe they were at least six and a half feet high originally.

As with all Passy-type tombs, archaeologists have found few grave goods interred with the human remains: arrowheads that were originally attached to full arrows but the shafts have decayed into nothingness and the skeletal remains of whole sheep that were buried as sacrifices with deceased. In one of the tombs, 200-foot-long Monument 19, archaeologists found a single grave of a man buried with an impressive seven sheep. A grave in Monument 26 was found to contain a pelvis with a sharp arrowhead embedded in it.

We don’t now a great deal about the people who built Passy-type funerary monuments. They were the descendants of the Danubian culture, first agrarian society in central and eastern Europe who migrated to France in around 5,500 B.C. and mixed with the local hunter-gatherers to produce the monument-builders known as the Cerny culture. These monumental necropolises were the first of their kind, not just in Europe but anywhere that we know of, predating the pyramids of Egypt by thousands of years. Since they required an exceptional amount of labour to benefit very few people, they may be indications of a burgeoning hierarchical society, but it’s unlikely that it would have been so developed as to have a massive captive workforce. This was a community effort, and it’s possible therefore that the monuments served a community purpose as well, perhaps as a locus of religious rituals and/or feasts.

INRAP researchers plan to examine the skeletal remains in the lab. DNA analysis, stable isotope analysis and parasitological analysis should fill in a great many blanks about who was buried in this necropolis: whether they’re related, what they ate, if they were local or were born and raised elsewhere, any diseases or injuries they may have been afflicted with.

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New exhibition of ancient sculpture in technicolor

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

On Saturday, September 13th, a new exhibition about polychromy in ancient art opens at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoket in Copenhagen. It’s not the first time the museum has put on a show focusing on the vibrant colors of ancient art and architecture. Gods in Color was hugely popular, traveling from the Munich Glyptothek to the Carlsberg Glyptoket to the Vatican Museums in 2004 and then moving on to other countries in Europe, reaching the United States in 2007. New research and advances in technology since then have allowed for a more precise understanding of the evolution and extent of ancient polychromy, which is what Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour will explore.

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptoket has an extensive collection of ancient Mediterranean art (the largest in northern Europe, in fact), so between its own sculptures and loans from other museums, the exhibition features 120 original sculptures and color reconstructions, a geometric expansion of the 20 pieces in the 2004 exhibition. The interdisciplinary research traces the history of painted sculpture touching on the Egyptians much of whose painted works have survived, before zeroing in on Greek and Roman sculpture which was subjected to brutal destruction of its polychrome remnants by the post-Renaissance obsession with phony white marble Classicism.

The research underpinning the exhibition has been a cooperative enterprise of the museum with institutions like the Archaeology Foundation of Munich, home of the von Graeve research team in ancient color which has been pioneering the study of polychromy on Roman and Greek art and architecture since the 1970s. It’s an interdisciplinary pursuit pairing archaeologists with conservators, artists, and cutting edge technology like infrared reflectography and electron microscopy to identify and replicate the remnants of color on the original sculptures.

The exhibition at the Glyptotek shows spectacular original works juxtaposed with experimental reconstructions in their original wealth of colour, the shocking sensuality of which, at one and the same time, makes Antiquity both more present and remote. In the course of the exhibition the story of the development of colour in the art of sculpture unfolds; from the first, very insistent, but extremely effective use of strong local colours on marble, towards a higher and more refined degree of naturalism. At the same time the exhibition shows that our reading of the classical motifs sometimes changes radically when the sculptures appear in colour.

The Glyptotek has uploaded some nifty videos about the exhibition. First a simple introduction:

The next explains how we can tell that sculptures were painted, ie, by direct evidence — actual remnants of color visible to the eye — and indirect evidence — uneven weathering depending on the durability of the pigment, clearly missing elements in a relief that suggests they were once painted on, naturalistic inlaid stone eyes that would have been matched with naturalistic color on the rest of the figure.

In this video the artist experiments with a variety of natural pigments and binders, and then confers with the archaeologist and a conservator to decide which approach to take.

There is a fourth video that I gather describes how researchers scan the sculptures looking for microscopic traces of color, but so far it is only available in unsubtitled Danish. I’ve emailed the museum asking for an English version and I’ll update the post when I hear back. Meanwhile, here’s the original version which is still worth watching for the pretty pictures. If you can understand Danish, please do tell us what they’re saying in a comment or email me via the contact form.

The catalogue of the exhibition is available in English from the museum shop and online here for 249 Danish Krone, about $43. (That includes VAT but not shipping, which to the US is a gulpworthy 199 Krone, or $35.) It features articles by experts in the field with the latest research about ancient Roman and Greek polychromy and is “profusely illustrated.” Pardon me while I dab a lace hanky at my drool.

There’s also a coloring book so you can paint some of the sculptures in the exhibition to your own taste, but sadly you can only order it as part of a bundle with the Danish-language catalogue. I’ll tell you, I’m still tempted to get it even though it would push this venture well into the absurdly extravagant range. I just really, really love coloring, and it’s so irresistibly apt in this context.

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Papyrus fragment is early Christian amulet

Friday, September 5th, 2014

A researcher has discovered an important fragment of papyrus that is an early example of Christian scriptures used as an amulet at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library. Dr. Roberta Mazza, a Classics and Ancient History professor and papyrologist with a particular interest in ancient religions, was looking through the 1,300 uncatalogued and unpublished pieces of papyrus in the library’s Greek and Latin Papyri collection as part of a pilot program to research, conserve and digitize the fragments. She found a papyrus about eight inches high and six inches wide with clear Greek writing covering one side and a few faint lines of Greek on the other.

The papyrus is creased, with one vertical line dividing it in half and four horizontal ones. That suggests it was folded up into a packet 1.2 by 4.1 inches in dimension and kept either in a container in the home or perhaps worn around the neck as amulet to ward off evil, a common practice in ancient Egypt. Before the advent of Christianity, these kinds of charms used magic incantations and prayers to the Egyptian or Greco-Roman deities. The writing on this fragment, however, was found to be a combination of Bible verses, including Psalms 78:23-24 and Matthew 26:28-30.

The full text of the papyrus:

Fear you all who rule over the earth.

Know you nations and peoples that Christ is our God.

For he spoke and they came to being, he commanded and they were created; he put everything under our feet and delivered us from the wish of our enemies.

Our God prepared a sacred table in the desert for the people and gave manna of the new covenant to eat, the Lord’s immortal body and the blood of Christ poured for us in remission of sins.

Radiocarbon analysis dates the fragment to between 574 and 660 A.D. That makes it the is the earliest Christian charm papyrus found to use the Eucharist liturgy in a charm and the first to refer to the bread of the Last Supper as the manna of the Hebrew scriptures. It wasn’t written by a priest or someone transcribing verses from a Bible. Dr. Mazza notes:

“It’s doubly fascinating because the amulet maker clearly knew the Bible, but made lots of mistakes: some words are misspelled and others are in the wrong order. This suggests that he was writing by heart rather than copying it.

It’s quite exciting. Thanks to this discovery, we now think that the knowledge of the Bible was more embedded in sixth century AD Egypt than we previously realized.”

The faint writing on the other side, deciphered using spectral imaging techniques, was a receipt for the annona, an in-kind tax on crops named after the goddess who personified Rome’s grain supply (the grain fleet and the grain dole were also called the annona). That means whoever made the charm recycled an old receipt and just used the other side. The receipt was so faded because it was the outside while the protective Bible verses were folded up safe inside the amulet packet.

The fragment was purchased on the antiquities market in Egypt around the turn of the 20th century and has been in the John Rylands Library collection since 1901 or so. There is indication of who owned the charm, but the tax receipt references the village of Tertembuthis in the countryside near the ancient town of Hermoupolis Magna (modern-day el-Ashmunein) in Middle Egypt, so it was probably a local man.

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Jewelry hoard hidden from Boudicca’s army found in Colchester

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

The excavation of the Williams & Griffin supermarket site in Colchester has born rich fruit again. Two months ago it was historically significant bone fragments. Now, three days before the dig was scheduled to end, archaeologists have found a collection of jewelry that was hidden under the floor of a house that was destroyed when Boudicca’s forces leveled Colchester in 61 A.D.

The hoard was buried in a small pit dug in the initial phase of Boudicca’s revolt, when her army was marching on Colchester which, despite its population of Roman veterans, stood largely defenseless and unfortified. Archaeologists believe a wealthy Roman woman or her slave collected her valuable jewels and hid them to keep them from being pillaged and it worked, to some extent. Boudicca’s troops never did find the lady’s valuables; they just burned her house to the ground and left the treasures to be found by archaeologists 2,000 years later. The entire hoard has been removed in a solid block of soil so that it can be excavated with all due deliberation in a conservation laboratory.

So far, archaeologists have found three gold armlets, a silver chain necklace, two silver bracelets, a silver armlet, a small bag of coins and a small jewelry box holding two pairs of gold earrings and four gold rings. When the block is fully excavated, they expect to find even more precious objects. It would be an extremely rich find no matter where it was unearthed, but it’s particularly significant given its location and the momentous events surrounding its burial. This is the first time a hoard of precious metals form the Roman era has been discovered in Colchester’s historic center.

Its historic value is far greater than its gold and silver content. There are traces of organic remains in the hoard’s soil block, like the remains of the purse that held the coins. That’s one of the reasons archaeologists have kept it intact, so that the earth could be carefully removed without damaging even the smallest remnants of surviving textiles, leather and wood.

The lady of the house’s valuables aren’t the only remarkable survivors in the house.

Ingredients for meals that were never eaten lay burnt black on the floor of the room in which the jewellery was found. These include dates, figs, wheat, peas, and grain. (Others will almost certainly be identified when soil samples are examined by a specialist in ancient seeds and plant remains.) Foodstuffs like these would not, generally, have survived, but here they had been carbonised by the heat of the fire so that their shapes were preserved perfectly. Some of the food had been stored on a wooden shelf which collapsed during the revolt, and the remains of the carbonised remains lay on the floor. The dates appeared to have been kept on the shelf in a square wooden bowl or platter.

Under normal circumstances, a discovery of ancient precious metals would be subject to a Treasure Trove inquest. The finds would be assessed for fair market value by experts from the British Museum and the objects offered to a local museum who would then pay the finders/landowners the amount assessed. Thankfully, Fenwick Ltd, owners of the Williams & Griffin store, have decided to waive any finder’s fee they would be entitled to under the Treasure Act and donate the hoard to Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service. That means the British Museum won’t have to get involved, and the archaeologists and conservators can focus solely on the work of excavating, stabilizing and analyzing this exceptional find.

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Conserving St. Ambrose’s 4th-century silk tunics

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

University of Bonn researchers are working with textile conservators to study and preserve delicate silk tunics attributed to Saint Ambrose, the 4th century Archbishop and patron saint of Milan whose skeletal remains are on display in Milan’s Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. The silks are also kept at the Milan basilica and are venerated as relics of the saint. The textiles have not been conclusively dated to the 4th century, but they are certainly from late antiquity which makes them very rare survivals that can lend unique insight into the period.

“These are marvelously beautiful vestments of sumptuous silk that have been ascribed to the saint,” says Professor Dr. Sabine Schrenk of the department of Christian Archaeology at the University of Bonn. One of them has intricate depictions of hunting scenes with trees and leopards, while the other valuable textile is kept rather simple. [...]

In the course of many centuries,time took its toll on these famous textiles. “If these fragile silk threads are to be preserved for a long time to come, it is critical to remove harmful layers of dust,” says Cologne textile restorer Ulrike Reichert, who has headed her own restoration workshop in the Dellbrück neighborhood for many years, specializing in preserving early silk textiles. The cloth is painstakingly cleaned with a tiny vacuum cleaner and delicate brushes. “For this we have had to carefully free the material from the protective glass that had been laid over it,” says Professor Schrenk’s colleague Katharina Neuser.

Since the textiles are far too delicate to travel, conservators have brought their mobile restoration lab to Milan to do the work on site. In addition to stabilizing and repairing the damage of centuries of display under heavy glass or sandwiched between other fabrics in a chest, the restorers hope their analysis will illuminate the evolution of relic worship in Early Christian Italy. Saint Ambrose himself, along with other doctors of the Church like Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome and Saint Cyril of Alexandria, was an early advocate of veneration of relics.

The tunics were revered as relics of Saint Ambrose at least by the 11th century, and probably earlier. A red cross was woven onto one of the textiles in late antiquity or early Middle Ages, an indication that they were held to be of religious significance. A woven band kept with the tunics dates to the 11th century. The inscription describes the silks as Saint Ambrose’s vestments to be held in great reverence.

Restorers believe the band was the work by Archbishop Aribert of Milan (1018-1045) who had political reasons as well as religious ones to emphasize the significance of Saint Ambrose. Saint Ambrose had famously stood up to Roman emperors on a number of issues, refusing two orders from Western emperor Valentinian II that he surrender two churches in Milan for Arian worship and excommunicating Eastern emperor Theodosius I for the Massacre of Thessalonica. Aribert wanted a strong Ambrosian archbishopric that held virtually independent temporal power over northern Italy. He created a princely court in Milan, as luxurious as a royal court only under ecclesiastical rather than princely control. He even called his bishops cardinals, as if he were Pope in the North.

At first he was a strong supporter of the German emperors, an alliance that strengthened his political position in the region. However, when he allied with the great lords of northern Italy against the lesser vassals, arbitrarily confiscating lands and denying them feudal rights of inheritance, the resulting conflict that would pit him against the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II and his son Henry III. Aribert refused to restore fiefdoms he had taken from the minor nobility and refused even to defend his actions before the emperor, insisting that as Archbishop of Milan, he was equal in authority to the emperor and if the emperor wanted those lands back from the see of Milan, he could just try and take them. Indeed, in a presage of the Investiture Controvery that would poison relations between the papacy and imperial throne for decades staring in the reign of Henry III’s son Henry IV, Aribert had personally crowned Conrad II with the Iron Crown of Lombardy making him King of Italy.

Conrad’s attempt to besiege Milan failed thanks to Aribert’s enhanced defenses and a militia he had created from every class of Milanese citizen. Conrad died in 1039 and the conflict between the archbishop and Henry II was finally resolved by diplomacy in 1040. Even though Pope Benedict IX had sided with Conrad and excommunicated Aribert in 1038, in the end the archbishop maintained control over his territory with his political and military strength, a lesson that future popes less in harmony with the Holy Roman Emperors would take to heart.

So the study of these silk tunics really covers centuries of religious, political and social history. Researchers hope it will shed light on economic history of late antiquity as well. There is a widely held belief among historians that in the 4th century silk thread was all imported from China and then woven in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly Syria. Professor Schrenk suspects there may well have been a silk weaving industry in Milan, however, because it was a center of imperial power as the capital of the Western Empire from 286 to 402 A.D.

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