Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Lifting and conserving a Roman mosaic floor

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

Last winter, University of Leicester archaeologists unearthed a mosaic floor from the Roman era that is one of the largest found in Leicester in three decades. In the winter of 2016/2017, a site on the corner of Highcross Street and Vaughan Way was slated for development, so the ULAS team was engaged by to survey it before construction of new apartment blocks began to perform any necessary salvage of archaeological remains. When they found the remains of a Roman house with a big fragment of a late 3rd or early 4th century A.D. mosaic surviving, they realized they’d have to remove it to save it.

This was not a simple proposition. At two by three meters (6.6 x 9.8 feet) in size, it is impressively large even though it’s just a fragment of the original floor which would have been three times larger and covered the entire square room. The tesserae are small cubes of stone and brick arranged in a square of grey tiles surrounded by border of red. With the central square are red accents, among them a floral motif, leaves and a Swastika meander border.

It’s handsome, but it’s not a glamorous floor like one of Leicester’s best known Roman remains, the Blackfriars Mosaic which is one the largest and most elaborate mosaic floors ever discovered in Britain. This is the type of floor most houses in Leicester would have during the Roman era.

Because it wasn’t the highest quality mosaic like you’d find in the villas of the very wealthy elite, the tesserae were fragile and after 1,500 years or so underground, the mortar that adhered them to the floor and each other was long gone. This made the job of lifting the mosaic a difficult one for the ULAS archaeologists. Archaeological conservator Theo Sturge, who was part of the team who lifted the Blackfriars Mosaic in the 1970s, contributed his extensive expertise to the challenging logistics of lifting a large, barely held-together mosaic in snowy, rainy, cold winter weather.

Thousands of tesserae had to be lifted in such a way to ensure none of them would be displaced and the pattern disrupted. To make this happen, especially in the atrocious weather conditions, ULAS had to glue Hessian fabric to the surface of the mosaic. Whatever remained of the mortar grout between the tesserae and the mortar base onto which the tiles had been set were cut away and thin boards placed underneath sections of the mosaic. The boards were then lifted and the mosaic was moved, section by section, to Theo Sturges’ laboratory for conservation.

[ULAS Project Officer] Mathew Morris added: “The finished mosaic looks fantastic, Theo has done an amazing job putting it back together. In some ways it’s quite unusual to go to this level of effort and cost to conserve a mosaic of this quality, but actually because of its poorer quality you can see the craftsmanship behind it. You can see the direction the Roman workers were laying the stones in, you can see at one point one of the lines started to bend off and so they’ve had to turn one line into three to create a straight edge again. It’s these little human touches and errors that you can see in it that are important because they give you those glimpses into how it was made, who made it and their attitude to work, that gives you that real insight into the people of Roman Leicester.”

Its conservation complete, the mosaic is back in Leicester where it will go on display at a future date and location yet to be determined. In anticipation of the upcoming exhibition, ULAS has just released a very cool video describing the lifting and conservation of the mosaic.

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The Two Brothers are in fact brothers

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Groundbreaking analysis of ancient DNA has answered a century-old question: are a pair of Egyptian mummies from the 12th Dynasty dubbed the Two Brothers actually brothers? One hundred and eleven years after their discovery, we now know the answer is yes. They are half-brothers, same mother, different fathers. This overturns the results from the original 1908 study that indicated no familial relationship between the two men.

The mummies of Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh were discovered by renown archaeologist Flinders Petrie in a stone-cut tomb near the village of Deir Rifeh in 1907. Their exquisitely painted coffins were placed next to each other and inscriptions on their sarcophagi identified them as brothers, sons of a local governor (an unnamed “hatia-prince”) and a woman (or women) named Khnum-aa. The richness of the funerary furnishings in the tomb confirmed their high status as the sons of an elite functionary. The style of the tomb dated it to around 1,800 B.C.

Flinders Petrie wrote to the Manchester Museum that his team had discovered a small 12th Dynasty tomb in Rifeh packed tightly with two polychrome painted sarcophagi complete with mummies, two funerary boats with servant figurines, a painted chest with a full set of four canopic jars, five statuettes placed in the coffins and two pottery vessels. All the human remains were intact and the craftsmanship of the artifacts of the highest quality. Petrie, keen to ensure the core funerary group would stay together, offered it to the museum for a £500 contribution to his next excavation. The Museum Committee accepted with alacrity and raised £570 19s in a few weeks thanks to the donations of boosters. The extra £70 19s went to the writing and production of a The Tomb of Two Brothers, a publication about the museum’s research into the find.

This pamphlet makes fascinating reading, touching on the transition from archaeology as an amateur treasure hunt to archaeology as a science, the complicity of antiquities collectors in systemic looting of tombs, and how the sausage of the examination of the remains was made in the Edwardian era. Hint: it ain’t pretty. Cringeworthy in an age when mummies are never unwrapped precisely because of the damage described in the publication: soft tissues disappearing into clouds of dust and moisture causing long-preserved flesh to rapidly decay.

It’s of particular interest in the light of the recent DNA analysis that upends the conclusion drawn from the initial study. The introduction opens with a broadside to those who would castigate archaeologists as desecrators of the dead, pointing the finger back at accusers who “would not hesitate to wear a scarab-ring taken off a dead man’s hand” and who “will handle without a qualm the amulets that were found actually inside a body.” This hypocrisy, the authors note, has real consequences on the treatment of human remains because it creates a market for looters to tear apart dead bodies for saleable trinkets.

They go on to explain why the examination of dead bodies is important.

Archaeology has been raised to the rank of a science within one generation: before that it was merely the pastime of the dilettante and the amateur who amused himself by adding beautiful specimens to his collection of ancient art. Then came the period of the enthusiast in languages, to whom inscriptions the joy of life. And now there has arisen a new school to whom archaeology is a science, a science which embraces the whole field of human activity. Archaeology, in other words, is the history of the human race. It is a science which contains within itself all other sciences. The new sciences of psychology and comparative religion owe their being to archaeology, and history itself is merely archaeology in a narrow form.

Four sciences are listed as examples of disciplines that rely on information derived from material culture of the past: psychology, comparative religion, ethnology and comparative anatomy.

Archaeology can assist these four great sciences only by opening and examining graves and their contents. It is only by a knowledge of the objects placed with the dead, and by the methods of burial, that we the ideas of early races as to a future life; by studying these graves in chronological order we trace the growth of ideas and the evolution of religion and of the philosophy of life. By an examination of the bodies, the knowledge of the ethnologist and the anatomist is immensely increased.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, the fervent belief that their morphological analyses form the scientific backbone of numerous academic disciplines vs. the DNA testing that proved the inaccuracy of said analyses. One of the sciences listed, ethnology, which at the time was emphatically focused on the putative anatomical differences between races and genders of humans, appears to have been the grounding for the erroneous conclusion.

Led by Dr. Margaret Murray, archaeological pioneer and the UK’s first woman Egyptologist, the Manchester Museum team examined the mummified remains in 1908. The team’s anatomist, Dr. John Cameron, compared their skulls and declare the differences between them “so pronounced that it is almost impossible to convince oneself that they belong to the same race, far less to the same family.” He thought the older brother, Nakht-ankh, might be a woman because the evidence of muscular attachment was so faint. When the pelvis established he was male despite the “female character” of the skull, Cameron looked for another explanation:

The question of the skeleton being that of a eunuch next suggested itself; but unfortunately, the state of preservation of the external genitals (see page 44) does not permit one to make a definitive pronouncement on this question. If this could have been proved definitely then we should have been provided with a distinctly rare opportunity of comparing the skeletons of two brothers, one of whom was virile, and the other a eunuch.

(Page 44 is where an extensive discussion of the man’s mummified penis and missing scrotum begins. There was no evidence of the scrotum having been surgically removed, btw.)

Mummy of Nekht-Ankh at various stages of unwrapping, Plate 10, 'The Tomb of Two Brothers', by Margaret Alice Murray et al, 1908.The virile brother has sub-Saharan African ancestry, Cameron concludes, but not exclusively. He was biracial, according to the skull feature studies prevalent at the time. Between that and the eunuch thing, the anatomist cannot accept that they are brothers, but he does explore later on the chapter the possibility that they could be half-brothers with the same mother. Their mother is titled Nebt Per, (“Lady of a House”) in the inscription, which means she had inherited an estate. A moneyed, propertied woman could easily have had children from two different husbands during a lifetime. Alternatively, one or both of them may have been adopted.

Either way, they were still brothers, as the contemporary inscription emphasized, and the exquisitely painted sarcophagi became the museum’s most famous icons. They have been on display almost continuously since 1908 and have been known as the Two Brothers just as long, blood relations or no. There have been multiple attempts to extract a viable DNA sample to determine the brothers’ brotherness but all of the results were inconclusive. The technology has improved greatly in recent years, however, so in 2015 scientists tried again.

[T]he DNA was extracted from the teeth and, following hybridization capture of the mitochondrial and Y chromosome fractions, sequenced by a next generation method. Analysis showed that both Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht belonged to mitochondrial haplotype M1a1, suggesting a maternal relationship. The Y chromosome sequences were less complete but showed variations between the two mummies, indicating that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht had different fathers, and were thus very likely to have been half-brothers.

Dr Konstantina Drosou, of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester who conducted the DNA sequencing, said: “It was a long and exhausting journey to the results but we are finally here. I am very grateful we were able to add a small but very important piece to the big history puzzle and I am sure the brothers would be very proud of us. These moments are what make us believe in ancient DNA.”

The study, which is being published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is the first to successfully use the typing of both mitochondrial and Y chromosomal DNA in Egyptian mummies.

The new study is available online free of charge so you can read the original publication and the latest one for a one-shot comparative history of science. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. who in turn was paraphrasing Transcendentalist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, the arc of the scientific method is long, but it bends towards accuracy.

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Wicked copper-headed barbed arrow found in melting ice

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

A wicked looking copper arrowhead still masterfully attached to a barbed antler shaft discovered in a melting patch of ice in Yukon, Canada’s northwestern most province, in 2016 has been found to be almost 1,000 years old making it one of the earliest copper artifacts ever found in the Territory.

The credit for this discovery goes to a herd of caribou, because even though the arrowhead was found by an archaeologist, he wasn’t at the site to excavate or search for ancient artifacts. Archeologist Greg Hare was flying over the area in a helicopter accompanied by a film crew that was shooting a documentary. He was pointing out some of the sites where he and his colleagues have discovered First Nations hunting weapons when they saw the caribou. The documentarians wanted to get a clean shot of the majestic ruminants so Hare’s helicopter landed to allow the filmmakers in the second copter to get a clean shot.

The rocky hillside where they landed was topped with a rapidly vanishing layer of half-melted ice and under normal circumstances they would never have stopped there given the precariousness of the melting ice on the surface. While they were waiting, the team spotted a barb sticking out of a barely-there thin layer of ice. They pulled it out gingerly and found a copper blade attached to the barb.

“This is one of the oldest copper elements that we ever found in the Yukon,” Hare said.

For thousands of years, caribou took refuge in the summer up high on the alpine ice patches to escape the heat and swarms of harassing insects. That made those ice patches good areas for ancient hunters to get close to the caribou.

Some weapons would miss their marks and disappear in the snow and ice, over time building a treasure trove of artifacts now revealed by the melting ice. Archaeologists have found ancient hunting tools made of wood, antler bone, and now copper.

“The significant part of the story is that [the arrowhead] is so old, and it is such a beautiful expression of copper metallurgy,” Hare said. “Copper only first shows up in the Yukon about a thousand years ago and this is almost at the beginning of that technology.”

The arrowhead was radiocarbon dated to 936 years ago. Bows and arrows only began to be used by First Nation hunters about 1,100 years ago, so this really is an incredibly early example of copper metallurgy in the area. For thousands of years before then the weapons of choice were atlatli, throwing darts launched by striking them with a paddle. It was a technology that was employed by indigenous peoples in Yukon for almost 7,000 years before it was abandoned in favor of the bow and arrow.

The copper in the arrowhead is incredibly pure at 99.9 percent, and it is of local extraction. The nugget from which it was made was recovered in the metal-rich creeks of the southwest Yukon. The quality of workmanship is exceptional and the hunter who missed his target doubtless would have searched for it in the snow and ice-covered terrain for days, even weeks, after it was lost.

The random good luck that put Hare and his team down on that hillside to recover such a rare and important transitional in the evolution of indigenous hunting weaponry would have passed them (and us) by if the timing had been only slightly off. Two weeks after the discovery, Hare returned to the site to explore it further and all the ice had melted leaving nothing behind to find besides lumps of still-frozen caribou dung. If there was anything there, it was carried away by the runoff into the rocks or down the hill.

Look at the condition of this arrowhead. It is a spectacular piece of work and we are very fortunate the right people were in the right place at the right time to rescue it in such pristine condition just as it emerged from the melt.

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Precise date of Porta Nigra in Trier identified

Friday, January 12th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the precise date of the Porta Nigra, the majestic Roman gate in the ancient city walls of Trier that is the largest ancient city gate north of the Alps. Researchers have determined conclusively that the Porta Nigra was built in 170 A.D. Up until now it was only possible to estimate a date range, a fairly broad one at that of between 150 and 320 A.D. Later modifications obscured the original structure, and while there are date markers on some of the sandstone blocks in the western tower, they are incomplete.

Its massive size also suggested that it was built at least in part to fend off regular attacks from Germanic tribes during the turbulent 3rd century like other large, highly fortified gates from the period. The city walls of Trier (Colonia Augusta Treverorum) were built during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.) which was relatively peaceful. The battles Marcus Aurelius fought against Germanic tribes were east of the Danube. Trier was way west of the hot zone. There wouldn’t have been an obvious need at that point to build a gate with such extensive defensive features. The need, it turns out, was probably the sort of motivation that often underpins monumental construction: to convey the power and prestige of the city.

It was trees that made this discovery possible, trees, water and the science of dendrochronology (tree ring analysis). In the fall of 2017, archaeologists seeking to answer the question of when the gate was built dug a deep cylindrical shaft at a site adjacent to the Porta Nigra where the ancient walls (demolished by shortsighted wretches after the unification of Germany in 1871) once stood. The site was carefully chosen because the Mosel River flowed through it in Roman times. The team hoped the waterlogged substrate might have preserved timbers used in construction of the gate.

At first they came up empty. Then to their jubilation they found two planks and a round piling, but it was a very tempered, serious archaeologically skeptical jubilation because not every piece of wood can be tree-ring dated. In fact it seemed their worry was well justified. The wood looked good from the outside, but were so soft that couldn’t even take the necessary samples. Freezing the pieces helped, making it possible to take a cross-section and get some partial information, but you need more that a piece of a tree to calculate the exact year it was felled. The dendrochronological gods were on their side, however, and the scientists found a small piece of park on one of the timbers that completed the annual tree ring record.

“This is a milestone in the history of the city of Trier,” said the director of Trier’s Rheinisches Landesmuseum, as the results of the findings were made public on Friday. […]

Mechthild Neyses-Eiden explains to Culture Minister Konrad Wolf how the preserved wood was used for dating. Photo by Th. Zühmer.The fact that the ancient oak wood that was found could be dated to the winter of 169/170 AD was a “stroke of luck,” said Mechthild Neyses-Eiden, an expert in dendrochronology — the science of three-ring dating — who led the research at the Trier museum. At the time, wood was used for construction immediately after being felled, she explained.

Trier was founded by Augustus Caesar in 16 B.C., but very little is known about the first couple of centuries of its existence. (The orgy of destruction after unification didn’t help.) Finally getting a firm date for the Porta Nigra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an iconic symbol of the city, helps sharpen an otherwise very hazy picture.

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Penn Museum training loot-detecting dogs

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

The Penn Museum is deploying one of nature’s highest precision weapons, the canine olfactory sense, in the fight against artifact looting. The museum, the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the nonprofit Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law and Policy Research are working together on a project that will train dogs to detect and protect smuggled artifacts.

No longer a matter of local desperadoes trying to make a quick buck, artifact smuggling is big business now, generating an estimated four to six billion a year in blood-drenched profits for the criminal and terrorist organizations.

“[K-9 Artifact Finders is] an innovative way to disrupt the market in illicit antiquities, and that’s really what needs to happen to slow down the pace of looting and theft in conflict zones,” consulting scholar for the Penn Museum and 2000 Penn doctoral graduate Michael Danti said. “Currently, art crime, that means fine arts, antiques, antiquities, is usually ranked as the fourth or fifth largest grossing dollar criminal activity in the world on an annual basis.”

Danti said terrorist organizations often use stolen cultural artifacts to fund their operations, deliberately destroying them and using them for propaganda and “click-bait.” He added that high-profile groups like the Islamic State have continuously done this, setting a precedent for other similar organizations to employ the same techniques.

The K-9 Artifact Finders program is still in the initial setup phase at this point. The plan is divided into three parts, much like Caesar did to Gaul. To narrow down the almost impossibly broad range of smells associated with cultural heritage objects, trainers will focus on the Fertile Crescent which has been devastated by war, instability and increasingly professional organized criminals that treat the area’s immense cultural patrimony like their personal piggy bank. Penn Museum’s world-class collection of Mesopotamian artifacts will be invaluable in this pursuit.

Four dogs from the Working Dog Center’s, carefully selected for their noses and temperament, will learn to distinguish between up to three types of newly excavated objects. Once the dogs have completed the scent imprinting and recognize what they’re supposed to look for, the trainers will teach them to distinguish between different subsets of odor.

[Penn Vet professor Cynthia] Otto said there is a special procedure to introduce the smell of artifacts to dogs without compromising the artifacts.

“Our main training approach will be to use cotton balls and let the artifacts and cotton sit together in a closed non-permeable bag. That way the odor from the artifacts is absorbed by the cotton and we don’t have to risk damage to the artifacts,” Otto said. “We will also train the dogs to ignore the odor of the plain cotton and other things that might be similar but not the actual artifact.”

The second phase will be on-the-ground testing and the third a demonstration program that would give customs officers the tools to train their own K-9 units to find smuggled artifacts. Phases II and III don’t have all the funding they need yet. To make a tax deductible donation to help get the program from theory to practice, click here.

There are a lot of unknowns about this ground-breaking idea, like whether it’s even possible for dogs to distinguish between artifacts and things that smell like them due to a shared environment or what have you. I bet it is. One should never underestimate the power of the canine nose, and the anti-looter squad wouldn’t be the first dogs used in aid of archaeologists. Migaloo, a very good girl from Brisbane, Australia, was trained to detect human remains of archaeological age. Cadaver dogs have been around a long time, but Migaloo was the first to have the nose and the training to detect ossified remains, not decaying flesh. She found 600-year-old skeletal remains buried eight feet underground during one her tests.

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2,500-year-old dragon bed pieced back together

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

Dismantling, cleaning, conserving and coating the largest the expanse of medieval glass in the UK took a decade. Piecing together a single lacquer bed frame took almost two. The dragon bed was unearthed in 2000 from a tomb complex on Commercial Street in downtown Chengdu, capital of China’s southcentral Sichuan province, but it was not arranged for ease of interpretation. It was in pieces, various sections of it placed in multiple coffins. First the archaeologists had to locate every part — 45 in total, the largest more than 10 feet long, the smallest about eight inches long — and then they had to immediately conserve the water-logged wood to ensure it didn’t dry up, shrink, crack and suffer irremediable paint and lacquer loss.

For 10 years, from 2000 until 2010, the wood parts were kept underwater for their own protection. In 2010, the dehydration process began. The bed pieces were soaked in a combination of chemicals that replaced the water content with an air-stable waxy substance similar to the way PEG was used in the preservation of the Mary Rose. This stage took four years. Next was a very slow drying stage that according to national regulations must be carefully monitored to ensure there is no more than 5% shrinkage. The conservators at the Cultural Relics and Rehabilitation Center of the Chengdu Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology managed to keep the shrinkage rate even lower than that, 3%.

Once dried and stabilized, the bed was ready for reconstruction. The problem was that it was hard to even know where to start, like a thousand piece jigsaw without a map on the underside of the box lid. Then the ghosts of Shu spoke to the engineers and conservators through little engraved icons near each joint. They look like a child’s line drawing, not proportional or to scale, more like symbols on a Mahjong set, but each symbol near a mortise has a match near a tenon. Fit the joints with the matching symbols together and you have yourself a 2,500-year-old dragon bed.

All told, it has taken 17 years, but they finally accomplished it. The lacquer bed is one majestic piece again, 2.55 meters (8.37 feet) long, 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) wide and 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) high. Named after the cinnabar dragons that decorate its long sides, the bed is the largest, oldest ancient lacquer bed ever discovered in China, and it is exceptionally well-preserved, with all of its original mortise and tenon joints still in fine functioning order.

“Parts of the bed were scattered in a number of boat-shaped coffins at the time of the discovery, and it took archeologists and their staff 17 years to restore the bed to its original form to the best of their ability, using various techniques,” said Xiao Lin, who heads the restoration department of the institute.

“Based on its structure and patterns, the bed is very likely to have been used by an ancient king of Shu State, who ruled the region in the early Warring States period 2,500 years ago,” said Yan Jinsong, an archeologist who headed the excavation work of the tomb complex. “The signs that makers left on the bed are highly related to the language used in the Shu State, offering new and valuable clues to archeologists keen to decode the mysterious ancient language.”

According to later chroniclers (all of whom were keen to connect their emperors or rulers with mythical godlike power figures of the distance past), the Bronze Age Shu culture has legendary antecedents going back thousands of years. There isn’t any archaeological evidence connecting the Shu to, say, the “Yellow Emperor,” but there are remains of settlements and artifacts dating as early as 2,000 B.C. By the 5th century B.C., the Shu kings were firmly established and founded Chengdu as their new capital. It’s around this time that the dragon bed was made, like for one of the Shu kings or princes. They didn’t have long to enjoy it. The Shu kingdom was conquered by the state of Qin in 316 B.C. during the Warring States period and victorious Qin general Zhang Yi rebuilt Chengdu.

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The Making of a Roman Silver Cup

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

In 2014, the Getty Museum was fortunate enough to be allowed access to one of the world’s greatest Roman treasures: the silver hoard discovered by a farmer ploughing his field in Berthouville, Normandy, France, in 1830. An unprecendented assemblage of silver-gilt objects that epitomize the best Roman silversmithing had to offer, the plates, bowls, cups, pitchers, statuettes are crafted with high relief details, scenes from mythology and elaborate designs that were probably the dining set of an incredibly wealthy Roman. Inscriptions by the donor, one Quintus Domitius Tutus, dedicating them to the Gallo-Roman version of the god Mercury indicate they were later used for ritual purposes and deliberately buried, but first they were likely used to set a fabulously splendid banquet table.

Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D. Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D. Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D.. gold det. Photo courtesy the JP Getty Museum.

The Getty Villa in Malibu played host to Berthouville’s most famous citizens starting in December 2010 as part of a collaboration with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France to employ its own greatest assets — the deep bench of conservation experience and know-how — to conserve and restore the objects. They had been roughly handled in the initial cleaning back in the olden days of the 19th century, so they needed cleaning, restoration and punctilious research to revive their shine. The work Getty conservators did uncovered a great deal of new information about how Roman silversmiths worked and how 19th century restorers worked.

Because of their aid in restoring these precious objects, the Getty was given the sole opportunity to exhibit the treasure and other fine silver pieces from the collection of the Cabinet des Médailles at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville ran from November 2014 through August 2015. It was the first time the Berthouville treasure has ever been allowed to leave France and very possibly the last.

I wrote about the exhibition at the time, but I missed the very cool YouTube video showing how Roman silversmiths would have created one of the exquisite cups in the treasure. There’s also a cool 3D rotating view of the Mercury statuette that is one the stars of the Berthouville show.

The video quality on this one leaves something to be desired, but the content sure doesn’t. It’s a lecture by Getty antiquities curator Kenneth Lapatin on the background of the Berthouville Treasure.

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Unique Roman game board found in 4th c. tomb in Slovakia

Saturday, January 6th, 2018

The accidental discovery of a 4th century burial in Poprad, Slovakia, in 2006 made national and international headlines for the exceptional richness of the find. Poprad, in the foothills of the High Tatra Mountains in northern Slovakia, is famed as a resort town and for its beautiful historic center, but this tomb was found by construction workers on a job site in an industrial area, not the historic center. Finding a tomb with a yew wood bed lined in sheets of silver was an unexpectedly thrilling surprise.

The individual buried was found to be a young adult male about 30 years old at the time of his death. He was born in the area where his body was interred, but he spent significant stretch of time in the Mediterranean. The tomb dates to around 375 A.D., just a few years before from Rome’s withdrawal west of the Danube and the end of the formerly friendly relationship between empire and the German tribes who inhabited what would become modern-day Slovakia.

Archaeologists think he may have served in the Roman army which was then hurtling towards disaster under pressure from barbarian migrations, both voluntary and Hun-driven, and dependent on the outer provinces and beyond for soldiers and mercenaries. He wouldn’t have been an infantry grunt. He was too wealthy and clearly a member of the elite of his own society. He was a person of rank, a prince or nobleman, the kind of person the Romans paid through the nose to fight for them as foederati, leaders of irregular units composed largely of their own men. The Visigoth king Alaric was one of those, until the emperor wouldn’t give him the command and lands he demanded so he sacked Rome to the bone not once, not twice, not thrice but four times. So was Childeric, King of the Franks.

If he did fight for Rome, that would explain his movements, his valuables, and one very special artifact found in his tomb: his game board. In a tomb full of shiny treasures and rare preserved organic objects like a wood desk, the discovery of the rectangular board with a proliferation of small incised squares and a few playing tokens of green and white generated enormous excitement. The type was unknown to the archaeologists and even after years of assiduous research, it is still something of a mystery.

“There were plenty of board games in ancient times with many variants, but reconstructing the playing technique is a very complicated process that only top experts can solve,” said the deputy of director of the Archaeological Institute in Nitra, Karol Pieta, as cited by the SITA newswire. Pieta lead the research on the tomb in Poprad. […]

“There has been not a playing board of similar type in Europe yet,” said Pieta for SITA. Games of this type were found in Greek and Roman temples on the floors or in the streets of ancient towns, carved into stone pavement. This portable wooden board game from Poprad is unique.

The team enlisted the aid of those experts, Ulrich Schädler, director of the (absolutely charming) Swiss Museum of Games on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Excited by the find, he was eager to get a closer view of the game and went to Slovakia to study it in person. His report is nothing short of glowing.

“The board game from the tomb of the German prince in Poprad is a great discovery and contribution to the history of games in Europe. It’s the best preserved ancient wooden board game that has been found to the north of the Mediterranean Sea. Together with Roman glass playing pieces it was apparently a prestigious object that documented contacts of the dead with the Roman world,” said Schädler, as quoted by SITA.

An analysis of the playing pieces revealed that it is ancient glass from the east Mediterranean, probably from Syria. “So the game was apparently brought from the territory of the Roman empire to under the Tatras,” added Pieta for SITA.

The game board will go on display at an exhibition dedicated to the contents of the tomb later this year at the Podtatranské Museum in Poprad.

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Inadvertant looter returns Toronto’s oldest artifact to city 82 years later

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

Jeanne Carter was a little girl in 1935 when the 10-year-old spotted an interesting stone object walking on the road towards Toronto’s historic Fort York, newly opened as a public park after centuries as a military installation. She picked it up, noted its neat triangular shape, mused that it might be an arrowhead of some kind, a souvenir perhaps, put it in her pocket and went about her business. She continued to go about her business for eight more decades, keeping the little object for all that time in her mother’s handsome long mahogany box of assorted treasures and knick-knacks.

That field trip to the new Fort York park turned out to be even formative that she realized. As an adult, Carter’s love of history inspired her to volunteer for the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). In 1957 she co-founded of a volunteer committee at the museum and led tours to countries all over the world. Today at 92 years old, she is the longest-serving volunteer at ROM. On a whim, because she had no idea just how much of a treasure her little treasure was, Jeanne Carter had the arrowhead examined by a historian friend.

“I thought it was an arrowhead or something, but nothing more than a souvenir,” said Carter, now 92.

A few weeks ago she learned it is not only an arrowhead, but also between 4,000 and 6,000 years old, originating from some of the region’s first Indigenous people from the Archaic period (8,000 to 1,000 BC).

“I nearly fainted,” Carter said of when she heard the news.

Her friend passed the arrowhead along to city historian Richard Gerrard who confirmed its advanced age and some unusual qualities.

“The material it’s made out of, quartzite, is strange for this part of Ontario,” Richard Gerrard, a historian with Museum and Heritage Services and a trained archeologist. “And finding anything that old sitting on the ground is special and has a wonderful story.”

The arrowhead, with slightly rippled, sharpened edges, would have been attached to a wooden shaft and used for hunting, but because of its age, it’s impossible to know what tribe would have used it, or any other details, said Gerrard.

Ancient arrowheads are not a common find in the area, not now and not in 1935. Only four total are known to have been discovered at Fort York, and the other three were all unearthed by archaeologists in official excavations. Unlike the archaeologists, Jeanne didn’t dig an inch to find hers. Historians think her smashing find was the result of construction work at Fort York. In 1935 the site was transitioning from active military to site to public part, so it’s likely that installation of infrastructure like a water or sewer pipe happened to churn the soil where the arrowhead lived and bump it to the top of the road for a little girl to treasure for her whole life.

She has been an outstanding custodian of the artifact, keeping it excellent condition and out of the digestive tracts of a number of children and grandchildren. When she realized how important it was, she immediately gave it to the city.

“I never dreamed it was important to Toronto or Ontario,” Carter said.[…]

The arrowhead is now among the more than 1 million historical objects and archeological artifacts held by the city. The vast majority are in storage, while some are on display at the city’s 10 site museums, like Fort York.

Many of the city’s artifacts were found in archeological digs at historic sites or development projects throughout Toronto, and will be held and preserved indefinitely.

“Material recovered archeologically tells the city’s story and reflects the First Nations presence over thousands of years,” said Wayne Reeves, the chief curator of Museums and Heritage Services for the City of Toronto. “No paper record was left by those early inhabitants, so knowing their story through archeological specimens is essential.”

The arrowhead is so special it will be one of the select few objects that go on public display. It is destined for exhibition at Fort York, probably summer of 2018, where Carter plans to be the first in line to visit it.

Meanwhile, another historic fort on the opposite side of the continent is doing something too cool not to report despite its utter lack of connecting thread to the above story. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver, Washington, is offering 19th century sabre training classes to the public. The sword was used by Army mounted dragoons in the 1850s and there were Army dragoons garrisoned at the fort at that time. Historians have confirmed that the men of E Company of the 1st Regiment of Dragoons were transferred to Fort Vancouver from Southern Oregon in 1855, likely fresh from the fight in the Rogue River Indian Wars. They were stationed there for about a year before being sent to Walla Walla where they built the eponymous fort.

That means when you sign up for Basic 1 (footwork, solo and partner drills, offensive cuts and thrusts, defensive guards and parries) or, for the more advanced student of the bladed arts, Basic 2 (more and harder solo and partner drills, perfecting technique), you’ll be tracing the steps of long-gone infantrymen, learning a skill that was their bread and butter even before the Civil War.

The classes will be held on seven consecutive Sundays from January 21st through March 4th. Basic 1 classes start at 3PM; Basic 2 at 5PM. The both run an hour and a half long. The fee is $100 per course, payable to Academia Duellatoria, a Portland historical fencing school whose staff will run the classes. Payment must be made by check or PayPal before classes start. (Contact Jeff Richardson of Academia Duellatoria at 503-888-9310 or by email) to book your spot. Training sabers and protective gear will be provided.

Here’s the best part: Anybody who sees both courses through to the end can join the fort’s team of volunteer reenactors at living history events. The class isn’t just a mechanical lesson on saber rattling. The whole point is to teach students about how the weapon was used by dragoons in the 1850s at Fort Vancouver and elsewhere, all the historical background you’d need to be able to relay to visitors in a reenactment scenario.

P.S. Oh man, Zorro and Italian longsword classes! Be still my beating heart. (Strictly a metaphor. Please do not jab me in the chest with the pointy end.)

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2nd. c. Chinese bronze mirror found in Japan in perfect condition

Monday, January 1st, 2018

Archaeologists excavating the Nakashima archaeological site in Fukuoka City, Japan, have unearthed an ancient Chinese bronze mirror in exceptional condition. Dating to about 1,000 years ago, the late Yayoi Pottery Culture period (300 B.C.-300 A.D.), the mirror was discovered in Fukuoka’s Hakata Ward. The modern-day city and its environs formed the core of the ancient state of Nakoku or Na, a small kingdom on the island of Kyushu that was governed independently of the state of Wa (the rest of modern-day Japan) from the 1st through the early 3rd century.

Nakoku had close ties to the Chinese Han dynasty and for centuries after its demise, most of what was known about Na came from reports in ancient Chinese chronicles. According to a chronicle of the Han Dynasty written by court historians during the Liu Song dynasty (5th century), in 57 A.D. the state of Na sent a high envoy to pay tribute to the Han Emperor Guangwu. In return, the emperor gave the envoy an imperial seal made of solid gold for his king, a version of the jade seals crafted for the emperors themselves. The gold block seal was discovered by farmers on Shikanoshima Island in 1784, confirming for the first time with archaeological evidence the story in the ancient histories. It was inscribed with sublime simplicity making it instantly identifiable: “From the King of] Han, presented to the King of Nakoku.” The seal is now on permanent display at the Fukuoka City Museum and the find site is an archaeological park dedicated to the discovery of the national treasure.

The bronze mirror isn’t 95.1% gold and doesn’t have an inscription from the Chinese emperor to King on it, but it is very much a rare and precious thing, thanks largely to how unprecedentedly intact and well-preserved it is. It dates to the first part of the 2nd century A.D., around the time when chroniclers record China and Na were engaged in the slave trade together (107 A.D.). Whether connected to that trade or another, a treasure for a high official bearing tribute or diplomatic gift, this mirror was a luxurious object then and is even more so now that it is an impossibly rare survivor.

The bronze mirror, manufactured in China during the Later Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220), carries patterns that classify it as a “linked-arc mirror.” It measures 11.3 centimeters across, and its surface is inscribed with text that reads, “chang yi zisun,” which means, “to benefit future generations forever.”

The mirror was unearthed in April, together with earthenware from sometime around the middle of the late Yayoi period, from a depth of some 2 meters beneath a former village site.

While most ancient mirrors datable to similar periods are typically found broken and covered with patina, this specific one was found whole, unpatinated, and in such good condition that it still reflects the viewer’s face, albeit vaguely. It is believed a humid environment prevented it from oxidation. […]

Hidenori Okamura, a professor of Chinese archaeology with Kyoto University, said, “The find site is not a tomb, so the mirror may have been used in religious rites. The find will also serve as a material for precisely determining the shaky date of the late Yayoi period.”

The mirror is now on display to the public at the Fukuoka City Museum.

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