Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Bingewatching Irving Finkel

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

I was searching the archives for something entirely unrelated when Irving Finkel playing the Royal Game of Ur against Tom Scott showed up in the results. Of course I had to watch it all over again because that video is pure joy. That drove me to seek out and rewatch his all-too-short video on how to raise the dead the Neo-Babylonian way. It only whetted my appetite, so off I went to the British Museum’s YouTube channel to see if there are any other Finkelgems out there, and there are. And how.

So first, there’s a whole video dedicated to his deciphering of the rules tablet of the Royal Game of Ur. Halfway through he whips out the cutest artifact of childhood history nerdery I’ve ever seen: a copy of the Royal Game of Ur gameboard that he made with his own hands when he was nine. It’s freaking amazing, of course.

Next, in a return to the eternally popular theme of dealings with the dead, is a discussion of ghosts in Mesopotamia culture. Killer pull-out quote: “I would like to see a ghost. I’ve never seen one; it’s very annoying to me.”

Ghosts weren’t the only problem supernatural creatures ancient Mesopotamians had to counter, contain and appease. In this video Irving Finkel talks about one of the gnarliest supernatural beings in ancient Mesopotamia and how one gnarly demon could ward off the depredations of another. I don’t want to include any spoilers for a five minute video, but one of those beasties played a small but key role in a classic Hollywood horror and Finkel at long last redeems his reputation.

It seems that games were Irving Finkel’s first historical loves. In this video he tells an absolutely heart-warming story of how he was so enamored of the Lewis Chessmen when he saw them at the British Museum as a boy that he spent years buying the beautiful artisan crafted replica chess figures that were then available in the museum gift shop. His family was of modest means and he could only afford to get one at a time on special gifting occasions like Christmases and birthdays. There are 32 pieces in the Lewis chess set, so it took a long time to get the set. In fact, he was still out seven pawns when he got his doctorate. His father bought the last seven for him as a present when Dr. Finkel earned his title.

This touching story then takes an unexpected turn that literally made me laugh out loud. Irving Finkel is not just one of the world’s foremost cuneiform experts, the translator of the oldest game instructions in the world, adorned with a razor-sharp wit and epic beard, but he is an absolute master of shade.

Back to his area of curatorial expertise. Here,  plucked from the very marrow of my unspoken dreams, is Dr. Finkel giving a lesson in how to write cuneiform to Tom Scott, his cheerfully hapless opponent in the Game of Ur, and Matt Gray on the steps of the British Museum. He shows them how to make the wedge-shaped marks with a simple rectangular stylus on a tablet of wet clay and makes it look easy.

Finkel follow up with another lesson inside the museum to a nice fellow named Nick who played a key cameo role in the Lewis Chessmen video. This one-on-one tutorial can get into more detail and I have to say Nick’s finished “Ashurbanipal” after 25 minutes is downright respectable. I’d be thrilled with that result myself.

That would be a top notch home school project, btw. Print copies of the cuneiform code page from the Cuneiform book by Irving Finkel and clay tablet curator Jonathan Taylor, make some play dough with common pantry ingredients and cuneiform your name or Ashurbanipal’s or the dog’s and then bake the tablets in a 200F oven for half an hour to harden them for display. Embed a magnet in the back and Ashurbanipal could be holding up your kids’ drawings on the fridge.

I’ll close with a lecture Finkel gave to the Royal Institution on the history of cuneiform writing. At almost 40 minutes, it is a deeply satisfying jaunt into the material and delivered with his inimitable panache. This man is an international treasure.


Gilt-bronze shoes found in Silla grave

Friday, May 29th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered a pair of gilt-bronze shoes in a Silla tomb in Hwangnam-dong, Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province. This type of shoe dates to the late 5th-6th centuries and is extremely rare. Only 21 pairs of Silla gold shoes have been found before, and the last time a pair was discovered was in 1977. That tomb was also in the Gyeongju area which was the capital of the Silla Kingdom.

The metal of the shoes has t-shaped cutouts on the surface and round gilt-copper decoration. These were not made for taking a stroll around town. They were used for funerary rituals as the elegant shoes the deceased would be wearing when they transitioned to the afterlife.

The gilded shoes were found during the excavation of tomb No. 120, a number assigned to the archaeological site during the period of Japanese rule (1910-1945), but it was not investigated at the time and construction of private homes damaged the remains of the tomb. In May of 2018, Cultural Heritage Administration and city archaeologists began an excavation to determine how much was left of No. 120.

The dig unearthed another two tombs to the north and south, dubbed No. 120-1 and 120-2.  The gilt shoes were in 120-2. Archaeologists also found other valuable artifacts in 120-1 and 120-2: a silver belt decoration, horse harness fittings, a saddle, bronze, earthenware and iron pottery. The silver belt ornament was discovered on the side of the deceased’s leg.

The excavation is still in the early stages. Archaeologists plan to complete the investigation of 120-1 and 120-2 before turning their attention to No. 120. As the original mound of 120 is twice the size of the off-shoots, if there are any artifacts and remains inside, they probably belonged to someone of higher rank.


Bronze swan full of liquid found in Chinese tomb

Thursday, May 28th, 2020

A 2,000-year-old bronze pot in the shape of a swan filled with more than three liters of an unknown liquid has been unearthed in the city of Sanmenxia, in central China’s Henan Province. It was discovered in a tomb found during an archaeological survey at the site of an urban renewal project. It is the first bronze swan-necked pot ever found in Sanmenxia.

The design of the tomb indicates it dates to the turnover period between the late Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.) and the early Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220). Other artifacts found in the tomb include an iron sword, a bronze kettle and ladle and jade objects. These are fine pieces, but not the kind of rich furnishing you’d find in an aristocratic tomb. The deceased was likely a titled official but of comparatively low rank.

Most of the bronze vessels from this period were pot-bellied designs, wide in the middle with stovepipe necks. Animal forms are rare in pottery, more commonly seen in lamps like the goose lamp discovered in 2018 in a Western Han Dynasty tomb found in Luoyang, a Henan Province city 90 miles east of Sanmenxia. This one is definitely not a goose.

The archaeologists invited a senior veterinarian to help identify the shape as of a swan.

“The design resembles that of a mute swan,” said Gao Ruyi, a senior veterinarian with the Sanmenxia wetland park, adding that the beak of a swan is longer than that of a goose, which has been degenerated as a result of being fed by human beings.

Archaeologists speculated that the ancient craftsmen may have observed swans closely to create the pot in such a realistic shape.

“We can boldly estimate that swans may have appeared in Sanmenxia during the late Qin and early Han dynasties,” said Zhu.

The tomb found in Luoyang also contained a bronze vessel (the more typical pot-bellied kind) full of liquid. The pale yellow fluid was at first thought to be rice or sorghum wine which were known to have been used in Han funerary rites, but was later discovered to be a much rarer beverage: an “elixir of life” made of toxic minerals.

Archaeologists aren’t speculating on what the liquid in the swan’s belly might be. It is murkier and darker than the elixir, a muddy yellowish brown with precipitates at the bottom. It does not smell like alcohol; it reportedly smells like earth. A sample has been sent to a laboratory in Beijing for analysis.


Roman mosaic floor found under vineyard

Wednesday, May 27th, 2020

An elaborate ancient Roman mosaic floor dating to around the 3rd century A.D. has been discovered under a vineyard in the town of Negrar di Valpolicella near Verona. The trenches dug so far reveal long uninterrupted stretches of mosaic pavements with polychrome patterns of geometric shapes, guilloche, wave bands, floral vaults and the semi-circular pelta.

The presence of a Roman villa at the Benedetti La Villa winery, still in operation today, was known since the 19th century. Indeed, the name of the winery is taken from the name of the contrada (meaning neighborhood or district), evidence of culturally transmitted knowledge of a grand villa there. The first remains were discovered during agricultural work in 1887. They were fragments of geometric mosaics, damaged in the course of the work, but the landowner dug down some more and discovered important figural mosaics depicting scenes of gladiatorial combat, two panels of Cupid driving a two-horse chariot and a religious ceremony. The panels were removed and the remains covered back up. Eventually the owner sold them to the city of Verona and they are now in the Archaeological Museum at the Roman Theater in Verona.

Even in 1922, when the first official archaeological dig took place there, there was no complete mapping and documentation performed. That dig unearthed three rooms paved with beautiful mosaic floors. There are dig journals, photographs and sketches, but at no point did the then-Archaeological Superintendency of Venice actually mark a map with a black x to record where they’d found what.

Numerous attempts were made in subsequent decades to find the villa and another smaller mosaic was discovered in 1975 and covered back up with soil for its preservation. Last summer, archaeologists returned to the site, digging long, skinny exploratory trenches among the terraced vines with the goal of systematically locating the full villa. They used the notes from the 1922 and 1975 digs, lacunose though they be, to ascertain the likeliest spots. At first they found walls, a stone slab pavement and steps believed to be part of the service area of the villa, so not a place where expensive mosaic flooring would be.

In August they unearthed the northernmost edge of the 1922 excavation and the first mosaic emerged. They had to stop there due to budgetary limitations and because it is a working vineyard, after all, and late summer/early fall is their busy season. Excavations resumed in October after the vintage and again in February only to be shut down by coronavirus quarantine. A week after excavations finally picked up again, archaeologists have hit paydirt.

Surveyors will liaise with the owners of the vineyard and the municipality “to identify the most appropriate ways to make this archaeological treasure hidden under our feet available and accessible”.

Technicians will need “significant resources” to finish the job. But local authorities have pledged to give “all necessary help” to continue with the excavation.


Roman-era game pieces, rare die found in burial cairn in Norway

Monday, May 25th, 2020

A rare group of Roman Iron Age game pieces and an elongated die have been discovered in a burial cairn at Ytre Fosse in Western Norway. University Museum of Bergen archaeologists excavated the site overlooking the Alverstraumen strait, an area known for its copious burial mounds, in advance of development and uncovered an Early Iron Age grave.

Underneath a top layer of turf removed by a mechanical digger, the team discovered a circle of stones around black soil indicating burning in situ. The burn layer contained bone fragments and charcoal from a cremation pyre. Artifacts were added to the grave after the fire had consumed the body: three ceramic pots, a bronze pin, burned glass, 18 game pieces and one long rectangular die, also known as an oblong or stick die.

The gaming pieces are made of bone and in relatively good condition with 13 intact and only five broken. The die, also made of bone, was broken in two pieces. On three of its long sides the numbers are in the form of circles with a dot in the middle representing rolls of three, four and six. One side is blank for a roll of nada. These types of dice are exceedingly rare in Norway. Fewer than 15 of them are known.

The dice is of a very rare type, exclusive for Roman Iron Age (AD 1 – 400). In Scandinavia, similar dices are found in the famous Vimose weapon-offering site at Fyn, Denmark. At Vimose also the gaming board was preserved, giving a unique view into Early Iron Age board games among the Germanic tribes in Scandinavia. Board games, inspired by the Roman game Ludus latrunculorum, seems to have been played amongst the elite in Roman Iron Age Scandinavia. These games are also the forerunner to the more famous Viking Age (AD 750-1050) board game Hnefatafl.

The results from the Ytre Fosse excavation will undoubtedly contribute with more precise data on the chronology of dices and gaming pieces in Early Iron Age Norway and the significance and social impact of gaming  during these times.

The high-status game gear is evidence that the deceased was someone of significant power and wealth in the area. The Alverstraumen strait was an important trade route transporting goods to and from the continent. Anyone who controlled the shipping lane raked in money from taxes, duties and fees and had access to luxury items like this Roman gaming set.

The objects and remains have been recovered from the grave and will be stabilized and studied at a conservation lab in Bergen. There are no current plans for the game pieces to go on display, but that is the ultimate goal.


Mammoth graveyard found in Mexico

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020

Mammoth remains excavated at Xaltocan. Photo courtesy INAH.The remains of more than 60 Columbian mammoths have been unearthed in Xaltocan, Mexico. There are adult males and females as well as young specimens. They likely died after getting stuck in the mud of an ancient lake or the swampy terrain left in its wake once it dried up.

The mammoth bones were found 12 miles from Tultepec where in a global first, a mammoth hunting trap deliberately set by humans was discovered. There is no evidence of human hunting, although it’s possibly people took advantage of the opportunity to take down a giant while it was stuck in the mud. So far no evidence of butchering has been found on the bones either.

The bones of other Pleistocene animals, including bison and camel, were also found there. The hundreds of bones recovered from the site are currently being stabilized, analyzed and classified. When that work is done, we’ll have a more precise figure for the total number of mammoths and other megafauna. Researchers will also investigate their ages at time of death, diets and any injuries and diseases.

National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) archaeologists began surveying the former Santa Lucía Military Air Base, site of the future General Felipe Angeles International Airport, in October 2019 to salvage any archaeological and paleontological materials before construction. They opened 23 trenches on the land; osteological remains were found in three of them. In the pit closest to what was once the shore of Lake Xaltocan, the osteological remains are in much better condition that the ones found where the prehistoric lake was deepest.

Human remains were also discovered at the Xaltocan dig, but they were far more recent, dating to the pre-Hispanic period. About 15 individual burials were found. Some of them were interred with grave goods including pots, bowls and clay figurines. The ceramic types indicate the burials date to the Postclassic period (950-1521 A.D.).

These finds will not prevent the construction of the new airport, but there is a proposal under consideration to create a museum that would be integrated into the airport complex.


Neolithic crouch burial found in Brandenburg

Friday, May 22nd, 2020

The skeleton of a woman buried in a crouched position has been discovered in Uckermark, northeastern Germany. Archaeologists with the Brandenburg State Office for the Preservation of Monuments were excavating the site of a new wind turbine when they discovered the crouch burial.

She had been placed on her right side, her knees bent to her chest, her head facing north. Her grave was not in a burial ground, but rather next to a settlement. No grave goods have survived. The exact date of the burial has not been established yet, but archaeologists believe she was buried between 2,200 and 2,500 B.C., the late Neolithic period.

“I’ve never made a find like this before,” [archaeologist Philipp] Roskoschinski, who owns the archaeological firm Archaeros, told the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

He and his colleague believe that this indicates the woman was purposefully positioned this way and was not simply put in the grave.

Researchers are now carrying out tests to get a better idea of how old the skeleton is as well as how the woman died.

“Unfortunately, there were no other finds in the grave that could tell us more about the woman’s life,” Roskoschinski told Tagesspiegel newspaper. “But the site was lovingly surrounded by fieldstones.”


Life and Death in Pompeii on film

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

In 2013, the British Museum staged an exhibition dedicated to the daily lives of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum and how they were snuffed out by the eruption of Vesuvius. Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum was a blockbuster, selling more than 50,000 advance tickets and drawing crowds of visitors flocking to see the more 250 artifacts from the British Museum’s collection and on loan from the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii. The show feature some iconic pieces — the fresco portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife, the “CAVE CANEM” mosaic of a guard dog from the House of Orpheus, the sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat, the plaster cast of a dog writhing in its final agony — as well as lesser known but no less remarkable survivors, like a carbonized cradle, a loaf of bread, a life-sized bronze hare mould used to make cakes or terrines.

A private tour of the show was broadcast in movie theaters at the time. The hour-and-a-half film walks viewers through the exhibition guided by curators and experts including Mary Beard and Giorgio Locatelli. It covers the history of the towns’ destruction, the last two days of their ancient existence

It’s got a sexual content warning because of the many explicit artifacts typifying Roman frankness about sexuality that were found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mary Beard discussing whether a third figure in a fresco of a couple in a reverse cowgirl posture was part of a threesome or an ignored slave or a voyeur is good clean fun, as far as I’m concerned, as is her discussion of the triple-phallus wind chime ( “phalluses to the power of x” “with bells on!”) and the one about the “more hardcore” Pan-goat statue.

Seven years later, the British Museum has uploaded the complete film to its YouTube channel. It’s one hour and 27 minutes long and even so not nearly long enough for me. They should have made it a mini-series. Pompeii Live is free to view, of course, but like so many of its brethren, the museum has been hard-hit by the extended closure, so if you’d like to help support it, donate here


Snake fossil found to be boa with infrared vision

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

The Messel Pit was a quarry mined for coal and shale from the mid-1800s until 1971. Fossils were found there beginning in 1900, but the pit could not be scientifically explored until after mining ended. The fossils were preserved in the anoxic environment created when layers of decaying vegetation and mud were deposited on the bed of an ancient lake. Because of the unique conditions of the lake and the shale formation 47 million years ago, Messel Pit fossils are of exceptional diversity and so well-preserved that fur, feathers, scales, stomach contents, even multiple pairs of turtles frozen in the act of mating have been unearthed there. It is one of the richest fossil repositories, the richest source of early mammal fossils and the greatest source of information about the Eocene epoch in the world.

Quarrying left a crater 200 feet deep that some people thought would make an awesome landfill. After much protest at this ruinous plan, in 1991 the government of Hesse bought the pit and made it a protected cultural monument.  It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and is now operated by the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research.

Among the rare fossils that have been found in unusual number are complete snake skeletons from four species. Two of them are small, around 20 inches long, but one of them, Palaeopython fischeri, could reach lengths of more than six feet. Named after Joschka Fisher, Hesse’s Minister of the Environment in the 80s and 90s who was instrumental in the conservation of the Messel Pit, the snake was classified as a member of the Palaeopython genus, but a new study has found it is actually an Eoconstrictor, a relative of modern boa constrictors.

A detailed analysis of the neurological pathways of Eoconstrictor fischeri revealed another surprise. The neurological pathways of the Messel snake are comparable to those of the recent large boas and pythons – snakes that possess so-called “pit organs.” These organs are located between the scales of the upper and lower jaws and allow the snakes to generate a three-dimensional heat image of their surroundings by combining visible light and infrared radiation. This enables the reptiles to more easily detect prey animals, enemies, or hiding places.

“However, in Eoconstrictor fischeri these organs were only present on the upper jaw. Moreover, to our surprise there is no evidence that this snake preferred warm-blooded prey. Until now, we could only confirm cold-blooded prey animals such as crocodiles and lizards in its stomach and intestinal contents,” adds [paleoherpetologist Dr. Krister] Smith [of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum].

The team of scientists therefore assumes that the earliest pit organs served to generally refine the snakes’ sensory perception and – other than in modern constrictor snakes – were not primarily used for hunting or defense purposes.

The study has been published in the journal Diversity and can be read in full here. If you’ve never seen a fossil of a complete snake skeleton before, you’re in for a treat. Look at this badass:


Early Iron Age burial found in France

Monday, May 18th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered the early Iron Age burial of a richly adorned woman in the town of Saint-Vulbas, eastern France. The older woman was found on her back, arms beside the body, an intact pot to the right of her head. She wore bracelets on each wrist made of alternating glue and green glass beads and copper alloy disks. The belt around her waist, probably made of leather, was covered in hemispherical copper alloy studs and closed with a copper alloy buckle.

While the tomb had collapsed over the centuries, it was possible to reconstruct its original shape: a rectangular pit containing the body of the deceased in a wooden coffin wedged into place by five smooth stones. The coffin had long-since decomposed, but its imprint remains on the soil. Fragments of the wood preserved under the body indicate that the coffin was made of oak.

The excavation of 2.5 acres slates to become an industrial park revealed a vast Iron Age burial ground. Three circular enclosures dating to the first half 8th century B.C. are believed to have been mounds originally. A cremation burial was found in the center of one of them. Near one of the enclosures, a funerary monument was built in the late 5th century B.C. It was a roofed structure on four posts features surrounded by a square enclosure.

In the middle of the enclosure is a pit with two separate deposits of cremated remains. A box of rigid organic material, likely wood, contained a selection of bones, washed after the cremation, and copper alloy filiform bracelets. The box was lined with limestone slabs. The second deposit contains bones, fragments of copper bracelets and an iron belt clip placed inside a flexible  container, probably a basket. The adornments suggest the deceased was a woman.





July 2020


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