Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Museum acquires St. Albans gold coin hoard

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

The hoard of 159 Roman gold coins discovered near St. Albans, Hertfordshire, in the fall of 2012 has been acquired by St. Albans’ Verulamium Museum. The first 55 coins were unearthed on September 23rd by first-time metal detectorist Wesley Carrington who found the first coin seven inches under the surface just 15 minutes after beginning his search. After consulting with the owner of the shop where he had bought his metal detector, Carrington reported the discovery to his local Finds Liaison Officer. On October 1st, Carrington returned to the site with a team of archaeologists from St. Albans City and District Museums Service and they found another 104 coins.

The coins are all 22-carat gold solidi from the late 4th and early 5th century struck in Milan, Ravenna, Rome, Trier during the reigns of Emperors Gratian, Valentinian II, Theodosius I, Arcadius and Honorius. Although they were found all over the field, archaeologists believe that’s the result of a couple of centuries of farming scattering the cache, that the solidi were originally buried together in a now-lost container. Their rough treatment by one or more ploughs has left surprisingly few marks on the coins. They are in pristine condition.

This is the second largest group of Roman gold solidi found in Britain. The largest was the 565 solidi found in the massive Hoxne Hoard that also contained 14,272 silver coins as well as jewelry and silver dinnerware. The St. Albans Hoard is the largest in Britain composed entirely of gold solidi.

Gold solidi were enormously valuable coins. By law they could not be spent on retail market goods, but only for large purchases and deals like property sales and entire ship’s of goods. Whoever owned these coins was very wealthy, a merchant or a banker. The last coins to arrive in Roman Britain from the continent came in 408 A.D., two years before the army withdrew leaving the province to deal with the descending chaos on its own. One of the ways they coped was to bury their valuables to keep them safe from pillagers until they could reclaim them, which is likely what happened here. It could also have been buried as a sacrifice to the gods, but it’s on the generous side for a votive, to put it mildly.

After the discovery of the hoard, the coins were examined by an independent panel of experts at the British Museum. Based on the panel’s report, a coroner’s inquest in July of 2013 determined that the hoard was treasure according to the UK’s Treasure Act. The British Museum panel then assessed fair market value of the coins at £98,500 ($150,000) and the relevant museum closest to the discovery spot, in this case the Verulamium Museum, was given the opportunity to acquire it for that amount.

They raised it and then some. Thanks to a sizeable Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £105,000, £24,000 from an overseas benefactor who prefers to remain anonymous, £11,000 from the St. Albans Museums and Galleries Trust and £6,000 from the Council, the museum was able to secure the hoard and some funding to create a display worthy of their rarity and beauty. The coins will go on display at the museum in September.

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2,000-year-old round pearl found in shell midden

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

In 2011, archaeologists from the University of Wollongong (UOW) and the University of New England (UNE) excavating the Brremangurey Rockshelter on the north Kimberley coast of Western Australia discovered a pearl in the site’s shell midden. The rockshelter was used by Indigenous peoples for more than 12,000 years, as attested by rock art and shell middens. The pearl was found in a layer of marine shell that radiocarbon dating found was 1800-1906 years old. It is the only pearl known to have been recovered from a prehistoric archaeological site in Australia.

The unique find caused much excitement in the community because of the area’s rich pearling history. The harvest of natural South Sea pearls from the large oyster species Pinctada maxima was a major industry along the Kimberley Coast in the 19th century, and while those beds collapsed more than a century ago, since the introduction of the Japanese techniques of pearl culturing in the 1950s, the coastline has been a center of pearl production.

The marine pearl is small but comely at 5.9mm in maximum diameter and weighing a quarter of a gram. Its petite size, warm golden-rose color and almost spherical shape are characteristic features of a cultured Akoya pearl rather than a natural South Sea pearl. Local pearl experts thought it more likely to be an intrusive cultured pearl that somehow made its way into an ancient midden pile instead of the one and only prehistoric pearl ever found in Australia. Indeed, tests on the midden pile found that some of the deposits had experienced significant time-averaging and downward movement of shell layers.

In order to determine the pearl’s true nature, the archaeological team had to eschew the usual analytic methodologies like radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis because they result in the destruction of samples. Instead they teamed up with Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm to do a comparative analysis of a cultured Akoya pearls with the Brremangurey pearl using non-invasive X-ray computed microtomography to capture the pearls’ inner architecture. They scanned three Cygnet Bay pearls — two seeded in 2010 and harvested in 2012, one keshi pearl that grew without a bead — and the Brremangurey pearl.

The scans left no doubt whatsoever that the Brremangurey pearl is natural. The CT scans of the seeded pearls showed a very clear homogeneous spherical nucleus (the bead made of crushed and compacted Mississippi mussel shells) wrapped in two relatively thick layers of nacre, one per year of growth. The Brremangurey pearl has a much smaller nucleus and 14 thin layers of nacre. There is no pearl farmer in his right mind willing to wait 14 years for a six millimeter pearl to grow, nor has this ever been a practice in the history of pearl culturing.

The nucleus is also very different. Like the cultured bead, it is almost spherical, but that’s just a fluke. A separate scan of the nucleus itself underscored how different its structure is to the beads of the cultured pearls. Instead of being a solid homogeneous material, it has a tiny hollow center — a cyst formed as a result of damage to the edge of the mantle — surrounded by rays of calcium carbonate terminating in an exterior surface the published paper describes evocatively as “pustolose.” That surface was then wrapped in layer of nacre. That’s how natural pearls form.

“This analysis confirmed that it was a natural pearl that had grown inside a small pearl oyster for over a decade before the animal was harvested for eating,” [PhD student and co-author of the study Brent Koppel] said.

Although there are no records to suggest that pearls are of cultural significance to Indigenous peoples of the Kimberley, the pearl oyster shells which produce them are very important. The shells formed the basis of a historically-recorded trade which stretched from the Kimberley to the Central Desert. It is likely that the pearl at Brremangurey is a by-product of pearl shell collection. The great numbers of pearl shells within certain layers of the shell midden at Brremangurey suggests that the shells’ cultural value extends well back into prehistory.

You can read the paper about the pearl study here (pdf). The Brremangurey pearl will go on public display along with some of those highly significant prehistoric pearl shells in the Lustre: Pearling & Australia exhibition which opens on June 20th at the Western Australian Maritime Museum.

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Bodicacia’s tombstone doesn’t mark her grave

Monday, June 1st, 2015

The rare Roman tombstone found earlier this year at the site of the former Bridges Garage in Cirencester does not mark the grave of the woman mentioned in its inscription. The headstone is engraved “DM BODICACIA CONIUNX VIXIT ANNO S XXVII,” meaning “To the spirits of the dead, Bodicacia, wife, lived 27 years,” and since it was discovered on top of the remains of an adult human and next to the remains of three very young children, there was much excitement at the prospect of this being the only known inscribed tombstone ever found in Britain to identify the person buried beneath it. Those hopes are now officially dashed because the skeleton belongs to an adult male, not a 27-year-old woman.

In fact, not only does the skeleton not match the gender of the person memorialized on the tombstone, it’s not even from the same period. The tombstone was carved in the 2nd century A.D.; the burial is much later, from the 4th century A.D. That means the archaeologists’ first idea that the gravestone had fallen on top of the grave soon after its installation and was soon covered in soil protecting it from masonry looters is also wrong. The tombstone was looted. It’s just that instead of being broken up and built into a wall, it was reused whole to mark a different person’s grave.

In March University of Oxford Roman sculpture experts Dr. Martin Henig and Dr. Roger Tomlin examined the stone. They noted that the pediment has features that mark it as top of the line: the cresting topped with a finial is a very rare feature and finely carved in the Cotswold style sculpture. The mask of Oceanus centered inside the pediment has no parallels among the 300 or so Roman tombstones that have been found in the UK. As a marine deity, Oceanus didn’t figure much (or at all, really, with this one salient exception) on funerary monuments anywhere in the Roman world.

Someone must have taken a dislike to the unusual iconography, because Oceanus’ face was chiselled off in antiquity. This may have been done when the stone was reused, a refurbishment perhaps inspired by religious fervor. Christianity was well-established in late Roman Britain — five signers of the canons adopted at the Council of Arles in 314 A.D. were British, including Eborius, Bishop of York, Restitutus, Bishop of London and Adelfius, Bishop of Caerleon — so perhaps Oceanus was defaced to cleanse the stone of its association with pagan beliefs and rituals so it could be reused in a proper Christian burial.

In contrast to the sculpture on the front that was the height of refinement and skill in its time and place, the back of the tombstone is very roughly hewn. It doesn’t even look finished. Henig and Tomlin believe this stark contrast indicates the stone wasn’t meant to be a freestanding headstone in a cemetery, but rather set in a wall in a temple or mausoleum. It’s in keeping with the expense and quality of the piece that it would originally have been part of a grand funerary enclosure.

Its fancy original home had to have been relatively nearby its more modest final location because it’s so heavy and unwieldy it can’t have been carried far. The cemetery with the high proportion of inhumations that was excavated from the former Bridges Garage site in 2011 was a walled enclosure. It’s a possible candidate for the source of the stone.

St James’s Place Wealth Management, the owners of the property where the tombstone was found, have donated it to Cirencester’s Corinium Museum who are delighted to have such a rare piece in their permanent collection. It will be a couple of months before it’s on public display. Once Cotswold Archaeology have finished cleaning and documenting it, the museum staff and consultants have to determine how best to exhibit a heavy slab of limestone five feet long. The charming little bronze cockerel, found at an earlier excavation of the same site, was much easier to place.

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Pieces of triumphal Arch of Titus found in Circus Maximus

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

Arch of Titus relief of Roman soldiers carrying spoils from the Temple in JerusalemThe Arch of Titus which still stands today at the end of the Via Sacra next to the Roman Forum, famous for its period depiction of spoils from the capture of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., is an honorific arch commemorating the emperor’s greatest deeds and apotheosis, not a triumphal arch. Built by his brother Domitian in 82 A.D., the year after Titus’ death and deification, it’s often called a triumphal arch because of the high relief depictions of Roman soldiers carrying the treasures of the Second Temple — the seven-branched Menorah, the silver trumpets, the Table of the Shew Bread — in Titus’ triumphal procession of 71 A.D.

Apotheosis of Titus relief on the vault of the Arch of TitusThat’s just one motif, however. The central panel in the single arch’s soffit relief depicts Titus being carried to the heavens by an eagle. The inscription also emphasizes the recently deceased emperor’s divinity: “SENATUS/ POPULUSQUE ROMANUS/ DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIANI F(ilio)/ VESPASIANO AUGUSTO” (The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the divine Titus Vespasian Augustus, son of the divine Vespasian).

Titus’ real triumphal arch was erected in 81 A.D., the year he died, at the curved east end of the Circus Maximus. The triple arch was explicitly dedicated to Titus’ conquest of Judea and Jerusalem. It’s not very well known today because in the Middle Ages it fell victim to the Roman thirst for building materials, leaving only old epigraphic records, coins and drawings testifying to its existence. It was still standing with a relatively intact capital Codex Einsiedelnsis, page 71v with inscription from the triumphal Arch of Titus at the eastern curve of the Circus Maximus, author unknown, ca. 800 A.D.when one of the anonymous authors of the Codex Einsidlensis (Einsiedeln manuscript no. 326) recorded the inscription in Inscriptiones Urbis Romae, an invaluable record of pagan and Christian epigraphy on monuments in the city of Rome that was written in the late 8th, early 9th century.

A marked contrast with the inscription on the extant arch, the wording on the Circus Maximus arch’s inscription leaves no doubt that it was a genuine triumphal arch:

Senatus populusque Romanus imp(eratori) Tito Ceasari divi Vespasiani f(ilio) Vespasiani Augusto pontif(ici) max(imo), trib(unicia) pot(estate) x, imp(eratori) XVII, [c]o(n)s(uli) VIII, p(atri) p(atriae), principi suo, quod praeceptis patri(is) consiliisq(ue) et auspiciis gentem Iudaeorum domuit et urbem Hierusolymam, omnibus ante se ducibus regibus gentibus aut frustra petitam aut omnino intem(p)tatam, delevit.

The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the Emperor Titus [snip many titles], because by his father’s counsel and good auspices, he conquered the people of Judaea and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, which all of the generals, kings, and peoples before him had either failed to do or even to attempt.

In the 12th century the central arch was used as part of the Mariana aqueduct that Pope Calixtus II built to convey fresh water to the city in 1122. A few years later the powerful Frangipani family had control of the Circus Maximus. They built a mill powered by the Mariana and a tower, the Torre della Moletta, was integrated into the Frangipani’s defensive fortifications extending up the Palatine. Modest homes and squatters’ huts grew up all over what had once been a triumphal arch. The grounds of the Circus Maximus were converted to agricultural use, irrigated by the Mariana.

Engraving of Circus Maximus in antiquity, Arch of Titus right, as printed in "De ludis circensibus" by Onofrio Panvinio, etchings by Étienne Dupérac, published 1600.
Engraving of Circus Maximus ca. 1560 when it was irrigated farmland, mill, tower, dwellings and decaying fortifactions right, as printed in "De ludis circensibus" by Onofrio Panvinio, etchings by Étienne Dupérac, published 1600

After the Unification of Italy in 1870, construction of the huge retaining walls along the banks of the Tiber and the Lungotevere boulevards cut off the Mariana or drove it underground into culverts. Most of the medieval construction around the Arch of Titus was demolished in the 1930s and 1940s, leaving only the tower, where Saint Francis of Assisi reputedly stayed on his last trip to Rome in 1223 as guest of the Graziano Frangipani’s widow and Franciscan lay sister Jacopa, still standing. Excavations at the time revealed medieval canals and walls made of ancient marbles pilfered from the arch.

Remains of Arch of Titus at Circus MaximusNow archaeologists excavating the eastern hemicycle of the Circus Maximus have found large blocks of Carrara marble (marmor lunensis) that were part of the ​​attic, entablature and columns of the Arch.

Archaeologists found more than 300 marble fragments of the monument, some of them the size of a small car.

They discovered the bases of the four giant columns that formed the front of the arch, as well as the plinths on which they rested and traces of the original travertine pavement.

From the remains experts were able to calculate the arch’s original dimensions. It was 17 meters (56 feet) wide, 15 meters (49 feet) deep with columns 10 meters (33 feet) high. The full height including the attic has yet to be determined. In antiquity there was the monumental bronze sculpture of a quadriga on top of the arch which would have added significant vertical heft.

Excavation is difficult because the remains were found about 10 feet below ground level, which is on the wrong side of the water table. Further digging is going to require blocking off the water in the area, a particular challenge considering a river literally ran through the arch and its ruins for hundreds of years.

Archaeologists want to reconstruct as much of the arch as possible using the technique of anastylosis which attempts to put the ancient pieces back together as accurately as possible with only the modern materials necessary for structural stability. In order to do that, they’ll have to find a solution to the water seepage problem and a million euros, two daunting prospects. Since that’s sure to take time, the foundations will be reburied shortly for their own protection. Meanwhile, archaeologists are working on a virtual model of the triumphal Arch of Titus.

Here’s a puny slideshow of the site. The only really good views of the waterlogged excavation I could find are in this unembeddable ( :angry: ) Italian TV news story.

 

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Scythian gold vessels found with opium, cannabis residue

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Gold vessels found in a Scythian burial mound in the Caucasus Mountains near Strovopol, southwestern Russia, have traces of cannabis and opium inside them. The artifacts were discovered in the summer of 2013 when kurgan Sengileevskoe-2 was being excavated in advance of power-line construction. Archaeologist Andrei Belinski didn’t expect to find anything of note — the kurgan had already been looted — but after a few weeks of digging, the team encountered a thick layer of clay. Underneath the clay was a rectangular chamber lined with flat stones that held a treasure trove of 2,400-year-old solid gold artifacts.

The trove consists of two gold bucket-shaped vessels turned upside down on top of three gold cups with holes in their bases, a heavy gold ring, two neck rings and a bracelet. Their total weight is 3.2 kilos (seven pounds). Seeing a black residue at the bottom of the vessels, Belinksi had forensic criminologists in Strovopol analyze the substance. It tested positive for opium and cannabis, providing archaeological evidence for a practice mentioned by ancient Greek historian of dubious accuracy Herodotus.

Herodotus gives an account in Book IV of his History of Scythians using hemp in a purification ritual after the funeral of a king.

After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed. [...]

The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.

The elaborate decoration on one of the upside down gold vessels may also tie into one of Herodotus’ anecdotes. At the beginning of Book IV, he describes the Schythian warriors returning home after 28 years of war in Persia to find that their wives gave up on them years ago and had children with their slaves instead. The sons, knowing they would not be accepted by the cuckolded husbands, attempted to block their return. They were successful at first, winning battle after battle, but soon they were overcome by the mere symbols of their slave heritage.

“What are we doing, Scythians? We are fighting our slaves, diminishing our own number when we fall, and the number of those that belong to us when they fall by our hands. Take my advice — lay spear and bow aside, and let each man fetch his horsewhip, and go boldly up to them. So long as they see us with arms in our hands, they imagine themselves our equals in birth and bravery; but let them behold us with no other weapon but the whip, and they will feel that they are our slaves, and flee before us.”

The Scythians followed this counsel, and the slaves were so astounded, that they forgot to fight, and immediately ran away.

This conflict became known as the Bastard Wars. One of the vessels has a scene of an older bearded man slaying a young warrior, a possible reference to the Bastard Wars. Andrei Belinski thinks the imagery isn’t referring to a specific battle, but is more likely to be a metaphoric representation of chaos in the wake of a king’s death, an appropriate subject for royal grave goods. It would be more in keeping with the decoration of another vessel: a mythological scene of griffons tearing apart a horse and stag in what may be the Scythian underworld.

The high quality of the decoration on the solid gold pieces suggests they were made for royalty. The designs are exquisitely detailed.

To archaeologists, the information contained in the images on the gold is exciting. From the warriors’ shoes to their haircuts, the depictions are amazingly lifelike. “I’ve never seen such a detailed representation of the clothing and weaponry of the Scythians,” says Belinski. “It’s so detailed you can see how the clothing was sewn.”

The excavation of the kurgan was completed last fall, but archaeologists are hoping to return to excavate the network of trenches and earthen rings circling the mound which may indicate a ceremonial complex built around the central mound.

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Plaster casts of Vesuvius’ victims restored

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

When Vesuvius erupted on August 24th, 79 A.D., a column of ash and pumice rained down on Pompeii, depositing as much as a foot per hour in some parts of the city. Fleeing the shower of stone and ash, many people took shelter in buildings, a deadly choice as it happened, since within six hours from the beginning of the eruption, the weight of accumulated pumice fall caused roofs and walls to collapse. An anomalously high percentage of the remains of people who died in this phase of the eruption — 345 individuals, or 88% of the people killed during the pumice fall deposit phase — were found indoors, killed by the buildings they had taken fled to for protection. Out of the people found outdoors (49 of them, or 12% of the pumice fall victims), most of them were probably killed by debris from collapsing structures. The rest were likely felled by larger stones striking them at ballistic speeds.

Most of the remains discovered, 650 people, were found in pyroclastic density currents (PDCs) deposit, 334 (51%) of them outdoors, 316 (49%) indoors. There is no evidence that they were burned to death. They were encased by fine ash and covered by the pyroclastic flow that blanketed the town, sealing in the ash and pumice layer and suffocating the people trapped underneath it to death.

The ash and pyroclastic layers hardened quickly around the bodies. The soft tissues decomposed over time, leaving only bones in cavities once occupied by whole bodies. More than 1700 years later, excavators of the ancient site noticed that underneath the skeletal remains of a young woman was an imprint of her breasts and body. They didn’t know how to preserve it, however, so the imprint was lost as excavations continued, as were similar such finds.

The breakthrough came on February 5th, 1863, when Giuseppe Fiorelli, Pompeii’s director of works who introduced a revolutionary new scientific rigor to the excavation of the city, was told by a labourers that they had found a cavity with bones at the bottom. Fiorelli told them to stop digging immediately and had plaster poured into that cavity and two others found nearby. They waited two days for the plaster to dry and then chipped away the ash exposing the cast of a person killed during the eruption of Vesuvius almost 1800 years earlier. Facial expressions, clothes, the position of the bodies all were perfectly captured by the plaster casts.

Plaster had been used once before in 1856 to capture an imprint in the ash, but it was the imprint of a long-gone architectural feature, not of a human being. That was Fiorelli’s brilliant innovation. He remained director of works until 1875. Under his leadership, plaster casts were made of people, animals — most famously the dog on its back with four legs in the air found in the House of Orpheus — furniture, doors, window frames, even the holes in the ground left by roots. The plaster casts of roots allowed archaeologists to identify plants with enough precision to recreate the landscaped pleasure gardens of the wealthy a well as the more practical vegetable gardens that fed the people of Roman-era Pompeii.

It was the expressive pathos of the human figures, their final moments frozen in time by the volcano that killed them, that has made a profound impression in all who have seen them since 1863. Luigi Settembrini, professor of Italian literature at the University of Naples, visited the site just a few days after the first castings were made. That night, February 13th, 1863, unable to sleep, he wrote a letter to Fiorelli.

It’s impossible to see those three cast figures and not feel moved. [...] They’ve been dead for 18 centuries, but they are human creatures seen in their agony. This is not art, not imitation, but their bones, the reliquaries of their flesh and clothes mixed with plaster: it’s the pain of death that reacquired body and shape. [...] Up until now there have been discovered temples, houses and other objects to interest the curiosity of cultured people, artists and archaeologists, but now you, oh my Fiorelli, have discovered human pain, and whoever is human feels it.

The filling of the cavities with plaster has continued ever since. In 1984 they tried a different medium, resin instead of plaster. Inspired by the lost wax method of bronze casting, archaeologists injected wax into the cavity left by the body of a young woman found in the Villa of Lucius Crassius Tertius in Oplontis. Once the wax was hardened, it was coated in plaster. The wax was then melted and the empty plaster cast filled with liquid epoxy resin. The result was a transparent cast through which you could see the Maiden of Oplontis’ bones and her jewelry in situ. Although its transparency and durability are marked advantages, resin casting is complicated, time consuming and expensive. Today Pompeii’s archaeologists are still using plaster. It’s a tricky process. Only a small percentage of the remains found can be cast — there are only around 100 plaster casts (including animals) out more than 1,100 bodies found — due to the condition of the ash shell, and the bones are very brittle. The plaster has to be thick enough to support the bones suspended in it but thin enough to flow freely into nooks and crannies so it can capture all possible detail.

Because the casts are human remains, archaeologists have been reluctant to restore them. The very old plaster has begun to degrade, however, exposing the bones inside. Now, as part of the Great Pompeii Project, a program of restoration and stabilization of many endangered areas of the ancient archaeological site, all 86 plaster casts of human remains are being restored. The plaster is being rehydrated where possible and repaired where it has crumbled away. The casts have been X-rayed and laser scanned so archaeologists knew exactly where everything inside was before they began to work on the plaster. With the precise data mapping of the laser scan, restorers have also been able to create precise replicas of the cast with 3D printing. That will be very helpful going forward for traveling exhibitions and the like.

This video, which I would strongly recommend muting, shows an overview of the restoration, starting with the casts being moved from the areas of the archaeological site where they’ve been on display to the restoration workshop (set up in one of Pompeii’s ancient buildings) of the Special Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Naples and Pompeii. It’s remarkable how much it looks like the wounded being carried on stretchers to a field hospital full of war casualties.

Twenty of the restored casts will go on display in Pompeii’s amphitheater as part of the Pompeii and Europe exhibition starting May 27th and running through November 2nd. The exhibition will take place concurrently at the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

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Bronze Age Egtved Girl was not from Denmark

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Egtved Girl, the Bronze Age woman whose exceptionally well-preserved grave was discovered near the village of Egtved on the Jutland peninsula of southeastern Denmark, was not born in Denmark. Researchers from the National Museum of Denmark and the University of Copenhagen studied the remains of her body, clothes and accessories using a combination of biomolecular, biochemical and geochemical techniques to determine not just where she was born and raised, but also to trace her movements in the years before her death and burial. Read the full study here.

The grave of Egtved Girl was excavated from the eastern side of the Storehøj barrow in 1921. She had been put to rest in a hollowed out oak trunk lined with cow hide and grave goods placed inside with her. Next to her head was a box made of bark containing a bronze awl and a hair net. At her feet was a birch bucket with a brown residue composed of ingredients like bog cranberries, wheat and lime tree pollen that were used to make a kind of mead. She wore bronze arm rings on each arm, an earring in one ear and a bronze belt plate of impressive size. A horn comb was attached to her belt. Her clothing was a short woven tunic and a cord skirt 15 inches long wound twice around her waist. both made of wool.

Although so many organic materials survived her long slumber, most of her own tissues decayed. Only her blonde hair, teeth, nails, and a small amount of skin and brain remained. Her bones probably dissolved in the acidic environment inside the coffin. A bundle of cloth was found to containing the cremated remains of a child 5-6 years old. A few charred bone fragments from the child were found in the bark box near her head. Egtved Girl was probably not her mother as her teeth indicate she was just 16-18 at the time of death. Dendrochronological analysis of the coffin dated the burial to 1,370 B.C.

For so young a woman to have such a high status burial is very rare. She must have held an important position in society, possibly a priestess or a ritual dancer. You might think, therefore, that she was local. To pinpoint her origins, the multi-disciplinary study used strontium isotope analysis of her first molar. They also tested the strontium isotope signature of the occipital bone of the child buried with her. The results were statistically indistinguishable, so the girl and the child came from the same place. Comparison to the Danish baseline and the specific strontium isotope values of the Egtved burial site excluded Denmark as their likely place of origin.

Her clothes weren’t local either. Strontium isotope analysis found only a single wool cord in the container with the child’s cremated remains that was of Danish origin. The rest of the wool fibers tested, all of them very high quality, had varied strontium isotope values that indicate the sheep grazed in an area with a widely varied ecology. The possible range for the origin of Egtved Girl, the child she was buried with and her garments stretches from southern Scandinavia to southern Germany, but researchers believe she was from the Black Forest which has a variety of strontium isotope values commensurate with those in the wool fibers.

“In Bronze Age Western Europe, Southern Germany and Denmark were the two dominant centres of power, very similar to kingdoms. We find many direct connections between the two in the archaeological evidence, and my guess is that the Egtved Girl was a Southern German girl who was given in marriage to a man in Jutland so as to forge an alliance between two powerful families,” [University of Gothenburg professor] Kristian Kristiansen says.

According to him, Denmark was rich in amber and traded amber for bronze. In Mycenaean Greece and in the Middle East, Baltic amber was as coveted as gold, and, through middlemen in Southern Germany, large quantities of amber were transported to the Mediterranean, and large quantities of bronze came to Denmark as payment. In the Bronze Age, bronze was as valuable a raw material as oil is today so Denmark became one of the richest areas of Northern Europe.

“Amber was the engine of Bronze Age economy, and in order to keep the trade routes going, powerful families would forge alliances by giving their daughters in marriage to each other and letting their sons be raised by each other as a kind of security,” Kristian Kristiansen says.

To determine her travels in the two years before her death, the research team used her nine-inch-long hair. The strontium signature indicates she that 13-15 months before she died, she was somewhere with very similar strontium values to the place she was born. Then she moved probably to Jutland where she stayed for about 9 or ten months before going back home for four to six months. Her last trip was to Egtved about a month before her death. This is the first time researchers have been able to trace the movements of a prehistoric person with such precision.

Our study provides evidence for long-distance and periodically rapid mobility. Our findings compel us to rethink European Bronze Age mobility as highly dynamic, where individuals moved quickly, over long distances in relatively brief periods of time.

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5th c. skeleton may have brought leprosy to Britain

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

The skeleton of an adult male unearthed on the outskirts of Great Chesterford, Essex, is one of the earliest leprosy victims in Britain and a A new study has found that he may even have been the person who introduced the disease to Britain. The skeletal remains were unearthed between October 1953 and April 1954 in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery exposed in 1952 by a commercial gravel digging operation. The subsequent rescue excavations discovered 161 inhumation graves, 33 cremation graves, 2 horse and 2 dog burials. This man was in Burial GC96 which included grave goods: the remnants of a spear (the head and a conical ferrule), a buckle loop, a knife and a bronze shoelace tag.

While his grave goods were decayed and most of his facial bones, ribs, some vertebrae and hands were missing, the bones that remained, including all the major long bones, were in good to excellent condition. The features of leprosy — narrowing of the toe bones, joint damage — were recognized on the skeletal remains in the 1950s, but other diseases can have similar effects. The well-preserved the bones allowed an international team of researchers led by the University of Leiden to apply the latest scientific analyses to confirm the diagnosis and reveal much more about the man’s life. Read the full study on PLOS ONE here.

DNA extraction was so successful that researchers were able not just to find Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex DNA, but to identify the specific strain of leprosy. It’s from lineage 3I, a strain that has been identified before in human remains found in Scandinavia and Britain but those date to the 7th century at the earliest. This is an ancestral strain from around the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. Lipid biomarker analysis (study of the fatty molecules from the leprosy bacteria) confirmed the ancient DNA results and found on class of biomarkers distinct from the later instances of 3I found in medieval burials. Strontium isotope analysis of the teeth found that he was not local to Great Chesterford. Oxygen isotope analysis narrowed down his likely origin to Denmark, although eastern France and central Germany could not be ruled out.

The strain type has little bearing on the pathogenesis or severity of disease, as this is dictated by the immune response to M. leprae, but rather it may be helpful in understanding the origin of disease in the Anglo-Saxon period. Other type 3I cases have been reported from medieval Britain (Winchester and Ipswich), Denmark and Sweden. A Scandinavian origin for this lineage is therefore one possibility, given the proximity of the Anglo-Saxon tribal homelands in Northern Germany with Denmark.

Radiocarbon testing found the skeleton dates to 415–545 A.D.

Project leader Dr Sarah Inskip of Leiden University concludes: “The radiocarbon date confirms this is one of the earliest cases in the UK to have been successfully studied with modern biomolecular methods. This is exciting both for archaeologists and for microbiologists. It helps us understand the spread of disease in the past, and also the evolution of different strains of disease, which might help us fight them in the future. We plan to carry out similar studies on skeletons from different locations to build up a more complete picture of the origins and early spread of this disease.”

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First stone circle in a 100 years found in Dartmoor

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

A previously unknown stone circle has been found on Dartmoor, the first new stone circle discovery in a hundred years. There are 30 stones, all of them now recumbent although packing stones found at the base of some of them indicate they were upright originally, in a circle 32 meters (105 feet) in diameter. One more stone lies just outside the circle and was built into an enclosure wall in more recent history. Radiocarbon dating of the peat underneath the stones found that they fell about 4,000 years ago. That means there’s a chance they could have been erected before Stonehenge which was built between 3,000 and 2,000 B.C.

At 525 meters (1722 feet) above sea level, it is the highest stone circle in southern England and would have dominated the landscape when the stones were still vertical. It is located 300 meters (984 feet) southwest of Sittaford Tor, one of Dartmoor’s hills topped with granite boulders, which was probably the source for the stones in the circle. The fact that the stones are of relatively uniform size and shape suggests they were deliberately selected and carried down the hill to the site.

The location of the circle is particularly significant because it fits perfectly in a crescent pattern created by seven other stone circles on the northeastern edge of Dartmoor. The newly discovered circle is the southernmost of the eight, just west of the first and northernmost circle, the one at Little Hound Tor. The author of the excellent Prehistoric Dartmoor Walks website has created a map of the arc. Archaeologists believe this pattern is deliberate, evidence of large scale planning and communication between the late Stone Age, early Bronze Age communities living on Dartmoor four to five thousand years ago.

The circle was discovered by Dartmoor native and stained glass artist Alan Endacott in 2007 after a controlled burn of the undergrowth exposed the stones long hidden beneath the brush. The find was not announced until last year and archaeological explorations are still in the early stages. Since this is the first stone circle found in generations, it gives archaeologists the first chance to study a pristine site using modern technology.

Jane Marchand, Senior Archaeologist, Dartmoor National Park said:
“Its discovery is providing an opportunity for investigation using the very latest archaeological scientific methods to provide long awaited insights into the chronology, construction and the purpose of these most elusive and iconic of Dartmoor’s prehistoric monuments.” [...]

Although the full results of the geophysical surveys are not back yet, preliminary results have revealed a wide ditch running in a linear fashion just outside the eastern side of the circle. Further investigation is planned later this summer.

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Red Lady of El Mirón buried with flowers

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

The El Mirón cave the Rio Asón valley of eastern Cantabria, Spain, has seen continuous human occupation from the Middle Paleolithic 41,000 years ago right through to the Bronze Age. The cave has been excavated yearly since the 1996 by a research team co-directed by Manuel González Morales of the International Prehistoric Research Institute of Cantabria and Lawrence Guy Straus, Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. In 2010, they discovered human bones deposited against the wall of a chamber at the back of the cave behind a limestone slab and encircled with the remains of small bonfires. The bones — an incomplete set including a mandible, a tibia with animal bites, several vertebrae and ribs, phalanges and part of the cranium — belonged to a woman between 35 and 40 years old at the time of death. The skeletal remains and the sediment on which they rest were covered in ochre which is why she was dubbed the Red Lady of El Mirón.

Radiocarbon dating found that the Red Lady died and was buried 18,700 years ago near the end of the last Ice Age at the dawn of the Magdalenian period. It is the only relatively intact Magdalenian burial ever discovered on the Iberian Peninsula. Intact burials from the period have been found in France (the country where the type site was found) and Germany and individual bones from the period have been found in Spain before, but they were scattered and not associated with a grave.

Cave burials in this era were very rare. All signs point to the Red Lady having been someone of great importance to the Upper Paleolithic people who used the cave as their home and workspace. The red ochre, very high in sparkly specular hematite, appears to have been imported, and the grave was tended for a significant amount of time because the ochre was reapplied after the long bones and much of the cranium were removed. The bones could have been victim to the unknown canine-sized predator whose teeth marks were found on the tibia, or the removal of the big bones also could have been a deliberate act. Her people could have removed them for display or some other ritual purpose and then reapplied the ochre. The discovery of numerous small hand and foot bones in the 2013 season confirmed that the soft tissues decomposed in place rather than the body having been dismembered before it was skeletonized.

The large limestone block two meters (6.6 feet) long and one meter (3.3 feet) wide had fallen from the roof of the cave and was engraved with symbols — multiple fine lines some of which form a V-shape that may represent the pubic triangle, often used in Paleolithic art as a symbol of the female. The block fell a few hundred years before the Red Lady was buried in the small space behind it. The engravings date to around the time of the burial, so it could be that the Red Lady’s mourners made a grave marker of sorts out of it, hence the possible female symbol.

With no obvious grave goods, researchers have been studying other items found at the burial site to see if they may have been associated with the grave. They discovered a baby tooth of a second person, thousands of stone fragments, bones of red deer, ibex, fish, antler points, bone needles and beads made from pierced shells and animal teeth. Stable isotope analysis of the Red Lady’s teeth found that her diet mainly (80%) consisted of meat from hoofed animals (likely the red deer and ibex whose bones were found) with fish making up most of the remaining 20% except for small amounts of starchy plants, seeds and mushrooms.

Researchers also collected pollen samples.

María-José Iriarte-Chiapusso and Alvaro Arrizabalaga at the University of the Basque Country in Spain have taken a different tack, focusing on the pollen found at the burial site. They found an unexpected preponderance of pollen from the Chenopod group, which includes plants like spinach (Journal of Archaeological Science, doi.org/2vc). Chenopod pollen is rare at archaeological sites from this period, and the high concentration found by the researchers doesn’t match the patterns at burial sites in areas where these plants were a food source, says Iriarte-Chiapusso.

It is possible that the plants were used medicinally at this time, but that would still fail to explain the high levels of pollen. “The extraordinary nature of the finds within the burial suggest that [the plants] had been deliberately sought out for some purpose related to the deceased,” says Arrizabalaga. This leads the team to believe that the woman’s people may have left a floral offering at the grave, probably of small, yellowish flowers.

“You can’t get away from the conclusion that this person, [out of] the hundreds and perhaps thousands of Magdalenians who once existed for several thousand years in Iberia, was given some kind of special treatment,” says Straus. “God only knows why.”

Researches will study her DNA next in the hope that it will lend insight into the repopulation of Europe after the Last Glacial Maximum (ca. 21,000 years ago). Scientists hypothesize that when the cold was at its worst, people fled to southern climes before spreading back up north when temperatures warmed up again. If the Red Lady’s DNA can be linked to later populations in Belgium, Germany and the UK, it will be evidence that the Magdalenians who took refuge in Iberia went on to repopulate northern Europe.

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