Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Man pinned by huge stone found at Pompeii

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

After the discovery of the first complete remains of a horse, the Regio V excavation in Pompeii has unearthed the skeletal remains of a man captured at a dramatic moment of death. He was attempting to flee the eruption of Vesuvius when he was struck by a massive stone that crushed his thorax and pinned him to the ground for 2,000 years.

Preliminary examination of the remains and context indicate that the victim, an adult male about 30 years of age, survived the first phase of the eruption in Pompeii, the heavy fall of pumice which caused the death of many of the town’s residents in roof collapses. He took refuge in an alley after the pumice fall had created a whole new ground level. His body was found at at the corner of the newly-unearthed Alley of the Balconies and the Alley of the Silver Wedding, but not at street level. By the time he got to that alley, the thick layer of volcanic stones had raised it to the height of the first floor, about seven feet above street level.

His choice of shelter could not shield him from the second phase of the eruption. He was hit by the pyroclastic flow of volcanic gasses knocking him off his feet and throwing him backwards. The gas cloud made a projectile out of a 300-kilo (660-pound) stone, possible a door jam, and shot it at his upper body. The top of his thorax was crushed and his head hasn’t been found yet. Archaeologists believe the remains of the skull, whatever tiny fragments may still exist, are probably under the stone block.

Osteological examination on his legs found lesions indicating a serious bone infection. This would have made walking extremely painful and physically challenging. Given his disability, he would not have been able to escape readily on foot in the lead-up to the eruption.

This is the first human victim of the calamity discovered in the Regio V excavation. It comes as a surprise to archaeologists because the area has been excavated twice before, once in the 19th century and again in the early 20th, but they missed this man and the stone block that may have crushed and decapitated him before the thermal shock of the pyroclastic flow sealed his fate.

“This exceptional find, – declares Massimo Osanna – reminds us of an analogous case, that of a skeleton discovered by Amedeo Maiuri in the House of the Smith, and which was recently studied. These were the remains of a limping individual – he too was likely impeded in his escape by motor difficulties, and left exposed at the time in situ.

Beyond the emotional impact of these discoveries, the ability to compare them in terms of their pathologies and lifestyles as well as the dynamics of their escape from the eruption, but above all to investigate them with ever more specific instruments and professionalism present in the field, contribute toward an increasingly accurate picture of the history and civilisation of the age, which is the basis of archaeological research.”

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Ancient Corinthian helmet found in Russia

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient Corinthian helmet in a grave on the Taman Peninsula in southwest Russia on the north shores of the Black Sea. The helmet is fragmented and corroded, but its face plate, even buried on its side, is instantly recognizable as the iconic emblem of Greek warriors from Athena to Pericles. This is a Corinthian helmet of the “Hermione” group which dates it to the first quarter of the 5th century B.C.

Initially, these helmets completely covered the head and looked like a bucket with slots for the eyes. The helmet completely protected the head, but limited the view to the sides, so it is believed that the warriors in such helmets, as a rule, fought in the phalanx and the warrior did not need to follow the movements of the enemy from the side. Later helmets began to be done so that the soldier had the opportunity to raise the helmet and slide back.

The northern coast of the Black Sea was colonized by Greek settlers who, starting in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., built a series of independent polities along the coastline. By the 5th century B.C., the cities were part of the Bosporan Kingdom, a Hellenistic kingdom ruled by two successive dynasties until it became a Roman client state in the 1st century B.C.

The Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IA RAS) has been excavating a late Bronze Age necropolis two miles outside the village of Volna for three years. It contains about 600 burial mounds (kurgans), making it unusually large for the period and area. Many of the kurgans in the necropolis hold the remains of Bosporan noblemen and warriors.

More of them have been unearthed in the 2018 dig season. The team discovered multiple graves of cavalrymen on the edge of the necropolis just outside its boundaries. The warriors are buried with their weapons and their bridled horses. They are believed to do date to the same time and were likely all interred as part of the same funerary rite towards the end of the 5th century B.C.

It’s the Corinthian helmet that caused the greatest stir, however, because it is only the second such helmet found within the boundaries of the former Russian Empire; the other was discovered in a burial mount near the village of Romeykovka, Kiev province, in the 19th century. None have been found in the Greek colonies on the northern coast of the Black Sea, although sculptural representations of them have, as have numerous other artifacts imported from Greece, both high value and quotidian.

Helmets of any type are rare finds, the kind of thing only high-ranking warriors would have been buried with.

Head of the Department of Classical Archeology IA RAS Vladimir Kuznetsov believes that the helmet indicates the social status of the warrior. “Apparently, this is a warrior who died in the battle and was buried not in his native city, but near the place of his death. That’s why the grave is not a crypt, but a simple burial. The helmet testifies to his status as a full-fledged citizen of some kind of polis, most likely one of the Bosporan cities, and also about a certain level of well-being, “Vladimir Kuznetsov said.

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1000-year-old mummy bundle found in Peru

Sunday, May 27th, 2018

Researchers from the Université Libre de Bruxelles’s Center for Archaeological Research (CReA-Patrimoine) have discovered a mummy bundle in nearly pristine condition at the archaeological site of Pachacamac about 25 miles southeast of Lima, Peru. Preliminary analysis based on the layers, the tomb style and its location indicate it dates to 1000-1200 A.D. A sample from the bundle is in the process of being radiocarbon dated now.

Pachacamac was founded around 200 A.D. and existed until the arrival of the Spanish. The archaeological site has the remains of monumental buildings — three major temple step pyramids, later step pyramids believed to be palaces for the secular rulers — and cemeteries, but has been severely damaged by looters and the elements. Because of all this damage, the discovery of so intact a mummy bundle in situ is extremely rare.

The excavation was part of the Ychsma project, named after the indigenous people of the area. After nine weeks of work, this year’s dig was almost over when the team discovered the bundle in large structure believed to be a sanctuary to the ancestors. The sanctuary had been used extensively by the pre-Inca residents of Pachacamac for funerary purposes and was studded with tombs and mummies. Most of the burial chambers were emptied out in the wake the Spanish conquest and what the looters didn’t get, water infiltration did.

They had only found a few funerary offerings during the previous nine weeks, wooden false heads once part of mummy burials, pottery, most notably groups of Spondylus shells and beads. They were imported from Ecuador and were expensive trade items. They also had great religious significance as symbols of fertility and abundance associated with the waters brought in by El Niño. The team was pleased with these finds and never expected to discover an intact burial chamber holding an intact mummy in its intact bundle.

It was carefully wrapped with protective materials on site and transported to the laboratory where researchers will have the opportunity to study it non-invasively without removing the bundle. They plan to use X-rays, axial tomography and an assortment of imaging methods to create a 3D reconstruction of the mummy and its wrap. The reconstruction will allow them to explore the bundle, any artifacts placed inside of it and the mummy itself. Its burial position will be visible, and if all goes well, a full examination of the individual’s anatomy — age, gender, illnesses, overall health, maybe even cause of death.

The Ychsma project excavations this year bore fruit in other significant ways too.

The other structures that were excavated are also related to worship: the first one, an Inca monument intended to host pilgrims and rituals, was built in several phases, each identified with a series of offerings such as seashells and precious objects. The last structure explored was probably one of the ‘chapels’ for foreign pilgrims, referred to by Spanish monk Antonio de la Calancha in his 17th-century description of the site. There, the excavations also uncovered many ‘foundation’ offerings, including vases, dogs, and other animals, as well as a platform with a hole in the centre, where an idol was likely placed. The complex appears to have been designed around this idol, involved in religious activities with pilgrims.

According to researchers, all these discoveries indicate that Incas made considerable changes to the Pachacamac site, in order to create a large pilgrimage centre on Peru’s Pacific coast. “Deities and their worship played a major part in the life of Pre-Colombian societies,” concludes Peter Eeckhout. “The Inca understood this very well, and integrated it into how they wielded their power. By promoting empire-wide worship, they contributed to creating a common sense of identity among the many different peoples that made up the empire. Pachacamac is one of the most striking examples of this.”

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Rare Roman sarcophagus goes on display

Friday, May 25th, 2018

The Roman sarcophagus unearthed last year at Harper Road in Southwark, central London, has gone on display at the Museum of London Docklands. It is part of a new exhibition dedicated to how Romans in ancient Londinium dealt with their dead. The sarcophagus will keep company with the remains, inhumed and cremated, of 28 Roman-era Londoners discovered in ancient cemeteries and more than 200 grave goods.

Only two other Roman sarcophagi have been found in situ in London, so this discovery gave researchers a rare opportunity to study a high end Roman burial in its context. The lid was pushed off to the side and the sarcophagus was filled with soil. Archaeologists believe it was looted in the 17th century, likely after it was discovered accidentally during construction work. The bones were crudely pushed over to one side of the coffin and one of her arms was thrown out of the coffin, perhaps to strip it of jewelry.

Filled with heavy clay, the sarcophagus weighed a ton and a half. It was carefully raised and moved to the Museum of London to be excavated in laboratory conditions. Archaeologists knew its valuables had been removed by the tomb robbers, but metal detectors did register the presence of something metallic. That proved to be a single flake of gold, thought to be part of an earring, and a jasper cameo that the robbers had missed.

Some spectacular funerary artifacts will be showcased in the exhibition, including a Roman face pot used as a cinerary urn, a jet pendant carved with the face of Medusa and a gold ring with an engraved gemstone depicting two mice eating together, likely the country mouse and city mouse from Horace’s Satires. The most valuable in monetary terms may be a millefiori glass dish that was found with cremated remains in Roman London’s eastern cemetery in 2009. The remains had been interred in a wooden container with the dish. It’s in exceptional condition and a very rare object in Roman London or the western Empire as a whole. It would have cost many times a soldier’s yearly salary when it was new.

There are a number of events scheduled in connection with the exhibition. This weekend a workshop will be held exploring the historical context of the Southwark sarcophagus and giving guests the opportunity to make their own mini sarcophagus. It won’t be carved out of stone, though, so harumph.

The Close to the Bone workshop held this June, on the hand, sets my nerdy little heart to pounding.

Immerse yourself in this hands-on workshop where you will learn different ways and techniques of identifying biological profiles of individual skeletons, as well as exploring unique details inside the Roman Dead exhibition with our exhibition trail. Explore 2D and 3D facial reconstruction techniques with the guidance and knowledge of professionals from Sherlock Bone.

You’ll also learn all about the work, processes and ethics behind the Museum of London’s Centre of Human Bioarchaeology, which was established in 2003 to curate and research the human remains excavated in the City and the Greater London area. With over 20,000 pieces of human remains in the museum’s collection, our Curator of Human Osteology, Dr. Rebecca Redfern, will share studies and insights resulting from this unique and captivating collection with you.

The Roman Dead exhibition runs from May 25th through October 28th. There is a minimum age — visitors must be at least eight years old — and admission is free.

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Large Greco-Roman building found north of Cairo

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

A large building from the Greco-Roman era has been unearthed at an ancient site near the village of Sa El Hagar about 75 miles north of Cairo. The red brick structure may have been part of a bath complex. Other artifacts recovered by the mission include a number of pottery vessels, terracotta figurines, a statue of a ram, bronze tools and a fragment of a hieroglyphic relief.

Some coins were also unearthed, one of them of particular note. It’s a gold coin in excellent condition depicting the crowned profile of King Ptolemy III on the obverse and the Land of Prosperity on the reverse. It was minted during the reign of his son Ptolemy IV (244 – 204 B.C.) as a memorial to his predecessor. It weighs 28 grams (one whole ounce) and is just over an inch in diameter.

Known as Sais by the ancient Greek, the city has a fascinating history. It is thought to have been a cult center for the worship of the war goddess Neith as early as the 1st Dynasty (ca. 3100 B.C.), but almost all of the early dynastic remains were destroyed by farmers who used the ancient mud bricks to make fertilizer. Archaeological evidence from its heyday as the capital of the 24th and 26th Dynasties has survived. One inscription documents the presence of a medical school for women at Sais’ Temple of Neith. The pharaohs ruled from the royal palace at Sais until the Persian invasion in the 6th century.

Greek chroniclers and philosophers put Sais at the nexus of their own and Egyptian mythologies. They identified Neith with their warrior goddess Athena. Herodotus claimed that Osiris died there. Diodorus Siculus said the city was built by Athenians in the mists of time before the great deluge sent by Zeus to punish people for their constant wars. Plato wrote that the Athenian statesman Solon was told the story of Atlantis by an Egyptian priest in Sais.

Jean-François Champollion visited Sais in September of 1828 on his second expedition to Egypt, the first since his groundbreaking 1822 translation of the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. He wrote in a letter that, funds permitting, he planned to come back to Sais to excavate it, but those plans did not come to fruition. He died unexpectedly in 1832 at the age of 41 and never did return to Egypt. Some Egyptologists believe that the Rosetta Stone was originally part of the great temple at Sais which was destroyed in the 14th century. Parts of its inner chamber were moved to Rosetta and Cairo, so it’s possible albeit unprovable.

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Bog find sheds light on war practices of Germanic tribes

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

When last we dropped in on the excavation at the Alken Enge bog in East Jutland, Denmark, archaeologists had found the remains of an estimated 200 men killed around 1 A.D. and thrown into a part of Lake Mosso which has now receded leaving the peat bog. The discovery of arranged bones, notably four pelvises on a stick, was evidence that the remains were deliberate sacrifices, not discards after battlefield cleanup. A newly published report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences updates and expands on the discoveries and their larger significance.

All together, 2,095 bones and bone fragments from 82 people were unearthed. Extrapolating from that figure based on the distribution of the remains increases the earlier estimate of people buried in the bog to 380, almost all adult men. The preponderance of unhealed sharp-force trauma indicates they died in battle, and the lack of previously healed wounds of this type means they were not seasoned fighters. Weapons found in the excavation — spearheads, an axe, fragments of swords, shields, iron knives — confirm the military nature of the clash. Metallurgic analysis found that the weapons were manufactured from local Jutish raw materials.

Gnaw marks on the bones indicate the bodies were exposed for six months to a year after death before the skeletal remains were deposited in the lake. There were also cut and scrape marks on the bones, evidence that the remains were treated before they were carefully arranged and deposited. This systematic and stylized approach to a clearing of the battlefield likely had a ritual purpose.

There are only a handful of other battlefields from the the turn of the millennium known, all in Germany and none of them with significant human remains. They are also thought to be the result of clashes between Germanic tribes and Roman forces pressing northwards. The Alken Enge excavation is the sole known example we have of large-scale human remains and from an intra-German battle.

Alken Enge provides unequivocal evidence that the people in Northern Germania had systematic and deliberate ways of clearing battlefields. Practices of corporeal dismemberment, modification, and bone assemblage composition suggest a ritual dimension in the treatment of the human corporeal remains. Taphonomic studies indicate a postmortem exposure interval before a deposition in the lake of 0.5–1 y, which is unprecedented in relation to the known burials and bog bodies.

The estimated MNI in Alken Enge significantly exceeds the scale of any known Iron Age village community and presupposes that the fighting groups of men were recruited from a large area beyond its immediate hinterland.

The preponderance of young adult males suggests that a selected group ended up in the wetland area. High incidences of perimortem trauma show that the conflicts were extremely destructive in character, with consequently comprehensive slaughter.

Overall, the Alken Enge find is exceptional of the period, but it anticipates the comprehensive postbattle weapon depositions from the second to fifth centuries AD in Northern Germania. In this way, Alken Enge provides a new, yet older, testament to the history of the militarization of the Northern Germanic societies and stresses the formative significance of the expansion phase of the Roman Empire at the turn of the era.

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Earliest evidence of Roman military found in Poland

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

Numerous Roman military artifacts dating as far back as the 1st century A.D. have been unearthed in Kujawy, north-central Poland, a region in the Vistula basin far outside the boundary of imperial Rome even at its greatest extent under Trajan in the early 2nd century. This is a find that could rewrite history, and it came about thanks to looters’ terrible understanding of true archaeological value.

Researchers from the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw were working on a study of the movement of peoples during the Migration Period, specifically looking for evidence that some Germanic settlements may have survived the upheaval and remained populated until the Slavic invasion. Part of the research involved looking through material given up by looters as trash of no interest to them. The team had to sift through buckets full of artifacts — sheet metal, coins, musket balls, lead shot — still caked with mud.

Among the buckets of assorted stuff, Dr. Bartosz Kontny discovered a piece of metal that looked a lot like a fitting from a Roman cavalry horse’s bridle. He set it aside, dampening his excitement by reminding himself that such artifacts aren’t found in Poland. Then he found another. And another. Soon he had a right pile of fittings, all of Roman origin. More Roman military artifacts followed, like 1st century latch buckles and bullae from the cingulum militare (a belt with hanging leather straps studded with rivets).

The bullae date to the late empire (4th century, early 5th century A.D.) and could be explained by barbarian recruits returning home with their gear after serving in the Roman army, but the much earlier cavalry fittings and buckles could not be explained so easily. Given the enormous significance of these objects, archaeologists arranged an official excavation of the area between the villages of Gąski and Wierzbiczany, where the looters reported having made most of the finds.

Among the unique monuments are metal pendants that decorated the straps of the Roman horse gear. They were in the shape of phalluses or vulvas (female womb). “These amulets were believed to ensure happiness and protect against evil forces, they had apotropaic meaning” – said Dr. Kontny.

As a truly unique object among the analysed artefacts, the archaeologist mentions a gold-plated copper [fitting] for a hip belt. It depicts a spear of a beneficiarius, a high-ranking officer of the Roman army. “It was an attribute of his power” – says the archaeologist.

Such a large accumulation of similar Roman objects in other places in the barbarian Europe – for example in central Germany (where, for example, the local population was recruited to the legions) is clearly associated with physical Roman presence.

The beneficiarius was an officer of rank and importance in the Roman army. He could command an advance unit or direct intelligence missions. If there was one in Poland, he wasn’t just passing through to enjoy the charms of the Vistula. Fittings like the one found in Kujawy have been found inside the boundaries of the empire with only two exceptions, and they were in Germania. Where a beneficiarius was dispatched, troops were dispatched with him. He was a commander, not a lone wolf.

Just to give you an idea of the distances involved, to the right is a map of the Roman Empire in 125 A.D. in the reign of Hadrian. The red dashed line is the imperial border. Kujawy is on the west bank of the crook of the Vistula in the territory of the Goths, Burgundians and maybe the Lugii (it’s not clear where exactly their lands were as they’re rarely referenced by Roman historians and geographers, and when they do get a mention they are described in different terms at different periods). The artifacts were unearthed about 20 miles southwest of where the bend straightens out, hundreds of miles from the imperial frontier.

According to historian Cassius Dio, Roman cavalry may have made in appearance in what is now Kujawy in the late 1st century, and it was the Lugii themselves who called said cavalry. Around 91 A.D., they made an alliance with Rome and asked the emperor Domitian to send troops to aid in their fight against the Suebi. Domitian agreed in a desultory fashion and sent a measly 100 horsemen. Dio does not mention them any further, so there’s no way to know if they arrived, fought, returned or anything else. The territory of the Lugii, as far it can be determined, seems to have extended further to the south of modern-day Kujawy, so even if the horsemen went to their aid as promised, they could well have been a long way away from the find site. If they did make it, they would be the first Roman soldiers recorded in what is today Poland.

One key clue that might explain the finds is that the area is located directly on the Amber Road which went from the Baltic south along the Vistula, following that crook before cutting due south overland to the Varta river, then continuing southbound over river and land routes until reaching the Roman Empire at Carnutum in Pannonia (modern-day eastern Austria). Romans loved them some amber, so it’s conceivable that there might have been some kind of military presence to secure the route. Pliny mentions Nero sending a trading expedition to the Baltic, but nothing about a military escort. Still, a highly valued trade route winding through the territories of many and varied tribes with little political stability and a tendency to engage in hostilities could certainly have used some securing. The Kujawy might be evidence that Rome sent legions to keep the amber coming.

None of the artifacts were found in the graves of local people, so it’s unlikely they were random bits of pillage or trade. The sheer quantity of the fittings strongly indicates the presence of the Roman military in the area and is the earliest archaeological evidence of Roman troops in what is now Poland.

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Intact Bronze Age cremation found in Cornwall

Saturday, May 19th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered an intact 4,000-year-old cremation urn on a farm in Cornwall. Found less than 10 inches beneath the surface, the clay urn is unbroken and still contains ashes and what appear to be fragments of charred human bone.

The team, led by Australian National University (ANU) archaeologist Catherine Frieman, unearthed the earthenware vessel dating to the Bronze Age during a two-week dig in a field near the town of Looe. The farmers told them the site had been extensively cultivated when they were children and for generations before that, so nobody expected to find a great deal of intact archaeological material, much less an urn buried there 4,000 years ago that managed to duck untold decades of ploughing.

“We were so excited to find such a lot of archaeology on the site despite scores of generations of ploughing, but to find an intact clay urn buried 4,000 years ago just 25 centimetres beneath the surface is nothing short of a miracle,” said Dr Frieman.

This and other evidence from the site has led her to conclude there was most likely a large mound over the burial which existed from prehistory well into the middle ages protecting the centre of the barrow.

“This is a sealed, intact cremation so it has the potential to tell us a lot about the cremation rite as it was practiced 4,000 years ago. We also appear to have some identifiable fragments of bone among the cremated remains so we’ll potentially be able to tell a lot about the individual themselves,” she said.

“We’ll be able to say what gender they were, possibly their age, or an age range, and depending on the bone preservation we can conduct analyses to examine where they were from, what their diet was like, where this food was coming from and what they ate and drank as a child when their teeth were forming. This is a very beautiful, very complete burial, and we’re very excited,” she said.

Other Bronze Age objects have been found in the dig: some pottery, small flint tools and two hammer stones that were used to chip flint flakes off larger pieces to shape and edge tools and weapons. A number of Bronze Age shipwrecks have been found off the coast of southeast Cornwall, so it seems this area was a well-trafficked trade route going back to prehistory.

The analysis of soil, pollen, flint and other samples is underway but it will probably be a year before a comprehensive story of the find is possible.

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Row of houses with balconies found in Pompeii

Friday, May 18th, 2018

Archaeologists excavating have discovered a row of houses with intact second story balconies. So far four adjacent balconies have been unearthed, plus the remains of railings, tile roofs and even empty amphorae that had been tilted on their sides to dry out in the sun.

Second floors of buildings are very seldom found in Pompeii because of the way the eruption of Vesuvius struck the city, burying it from above first with a six-hour fall of pumice and ash. The weight of the volcanic material caused roofs and storeys to collapse and suffocated people as they sought shelter. The superheated pyroclastic surges that followed reduced people and buildings to ashes. Herculaneum, on the other hand, was destroyed by volcanic pyroclasts that flooded the city from bottom to top and then way over the top. They hardened into 20 meters of dense rock, preserving structures and carbonized organic material for 2,000 years.

The balconies were found in a previously unexcavated section of Regio V of the ancient city known as “the wedge” because of its triangular shape. The excavation in this area has been highly productive, rich with frescoed walls in vivid colors and designs — ochre and pompeiian red, geometrics, animals, florals, winged cupids — but the discovery of a whole alley of balconies preserved in great detail is unique for Pompeii.

The excavation is ongoing and in the upcoming months more may be found. Meanwhile, the dig team, which is composed of more than 40 experts from architects to archaeologists to archaeobotanists, is exploring the site more thoroughly than ever with the aid of technology like drones, nanocameras and laser scanners. In the course of their work, they’ve uncovered the very beginnings of Pompeiian archaeology, the excavations of the mid-1700s, which were accomplished by digging one very deep hole and then digging long tunnels radiating out from the central pit. This was not archaeology as the professional discipline dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and preservation of material culture. It was treasure-hunting, pure and simple, and the archaeological team walking in their footsteps today has found evidence of this in the things they dropped or deliberately left behind because they considered them of little value, including fresco fragments and a large, handsome bronze vessel missing one of its handles.

The newly discovered homes and their balconies will be stabilized and added to a new route that will take visitors from the Via di Nola to the Alley of the Silver Wedding, the latter of which takes it name from a luxury villa found on the street. The House of the Silver Wedding is sumptuously appointed, featuring a grand atrium with Corinthian columns 23 feet high, elaborate frescoes in the dining room, mosaics depicting a Roman aqueduct in the private baths, and even rich Pompeiian red frescoes on a cream background covering the entire wall of a small latrine off the kitchen. The villa has been closed for decades but is in the process of being restored and will be reopened to the public as part of the new route. You can get a glimpse of its many wonders in this video tour.

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Tortoises all the way down in Plovdiv Roman tomb

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

When a Roman tomb was discovered in a courtyard behind the Rector’s office at the Medical University of Plovdiv in Bulgaria at the end of March, one of the more curious items found within was the shell of a tortoise next to the head of one of the individuals buried in the grave. Now the shell of a second tortoise has been found in the tomb, a unique discovery in Bulgarian archaeology.

“[The second tortoise in the Roman tomb] is smaller [than the first one], and [its remains] are not so well preserved,” [Plovdiv University archaeologist Zdravka] Kortukova has told local news and culture site Plovdiv Time, emphasizing that the tortoise tomb find is the first such archaeological discovery in Bulgaria.

“In the perceptions of our ancient predecessors, the tortoise is connected with god Hermes in his chthonic (underworld) aspect,” says in turn [Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology archaeologist Maya] Martinova.

“Some researchers think that the depictions of Hermes with a tortoise in his hand is connected with the belief that the dead tortoise, not unlike the deceased [human]’s soul, moved to the afterlife,” she elaborates.

“That is, the tortoise is directly connected with Hermes Psychopompos and the immortality of the soul,” stresses the archaeologist.

She has referred to one of ancient deity Hermes’ functions in (Ancient Greek but also Thracian and Roman) mythology, namely, that of a psychopomp, a conveyor or conductor of souls who escorts newly deceased souls from the Earth to the afterlife.

The discovery of coins inside the grave narrow the burial date down to the 3rd century. The coins were mined in Philipopolis (the ancient name for Plovdiv) and Traianopolis (modern-day Alexandroupoli Municipality in Northeast Greece) and date to the reigns of the Emperor Caracalla (r. 198-217 A.D.) and Elagabalus (r. 218-222 A.D.).

As the Medical University is located over one of four burial grounds known to have dotted the outer perimeter of the ancient city, the discovery of a Roman tomb from this period was not surprising, but its excellent condition is.

“The grave which we have unearthed this year is of the most widespread type of burial facility – a grave of brick masonry with a flat lid, in this case made of flat gneiss slabs. It is oriented north – south, with a little deviation to the northeast. On the bottom [of the tomb], there was a “pillow” made of tilted bricks,” Martinova reveals.

“Our first impression was that the grave had not been opened but after we expanded the research spot, and unearthed the entire facility, it turned out that the lid had been compromised in the southern section, so someone had been here before us. This probably happened back in the Antiquity,” she adds.

The bones of two adults and one child about 10-11 years of age were found in the grave. Archaeologists believe they were a family, but that cannot be conclusively confirmed short of successful extraction and analysis of DNA.

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