Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Proof found of Amenhotep III-Akhenaten co-regency

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

There has long been a debate among historians and Egyptologists over whether Amenhotep III and his son, the future Akhenaten shared a co-regency towards the end of the father’s reign, with some experts positing a power sharing arrangement lasting as long as 12 years or as short as two years. Much of the recent scholarship on the controversy has argued against the co-regency theory altogether. There has been no solid archaeological evidence to resolve the debate, but on Thursday Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, announced that inscriptions found in the Luxor tomb of Vizier Amenhotep-Huy provide conclusive evidence that Amenhotep III shared power with Akhenaten for at least eight years in the waning days of the elder’s reign.

The inscriptions were carved onto architectural remains, collapsed walls and columns, in tomb number 28 in the El Asasif area of Luxor. Some of the inscriptions depict scenes of father and son together in the same space as one follows the other. There are also cartouches — the prenomen or throne name of a pharaoh surrounded by a protective oval — of both pharaohs next to each other. Traditionally, viziers’ tombs always bear the cartouche of the pharaoh they served under.

As if that weren’t bonanza enough, the inscriptions date to a very specific time: the first Heb-Sed of Amenhotep III. The Heb-Sed was a feast like a royal jubilee celebrated by a pharaoh 30 years into his reign and then every three years after that. Since Amenhotep ruled for approximately 38 years (1388–1351 B.C. or 1391–1353 B.C.). Records survive referring to his 38th regnal year and some historians believe he may have begun his 39th but died very soon into it. That means father and son were co-regents for at least eight years.

Amenhotep III has the most surviving statues of any pharaoh, 250 of them from the beginning of his reign all the way through to the end. The ones towards the end depict an ailing man. Forensic examination of his mummy found evidence of arthritis, obesity and a plethora of dental caries and abscesses which must have been excruciatingly painful. He was in his 50s at the time of his death, so it makes sense that after ruling over Egypt since he was a boy, he enlisted his son to help him when his myriad illnesses made the business of pharaohing increasingly difficult.

The vizier’s tomb was first unearthed in 1978. A multi-national team led by the Instituto de Estudios del Antiguo Egipto de Madrid have been excavating, recording and studying the architectural elements of the tomb since 2009. You can read more about on the website of the Vizier Amenhotep-Huy Project. It’s in Spanish, but if you can’t read it in the original it’s worth it to use an online translator to explore the excavation diaries for each season. There are some great videos of the digs too.


One of the oldest temples in Rome unearthed

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

A team of archaeologists excavating the site of Sant’Omobono in the historic center of Rome have unearthed the foundations of one of the oldest temples in Rome. In the shadow of the 15th century church of Sant’Omobono just east of the Tiberine Island, archaeologists and students from the University of Michigan, the University of Calabria, the Museum of London Archaeology and the City of Rome dug a trench 15 feet deep to reveal the remains of an archaic temple from the 6th century B.C. when Rome was still ruled by Etruscan kings. Along with the remains of the first temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, also built under the reign of the kings in the 6th century B.C. and destroyed in 83 B.C. during Sulla’s second civil war, these are the oldest temple ruins found in Rome.

Because the depth of the trench was seven and a half feet below the water table, the walls had to be shored up with metal sheeting and multiple sump pumps to allow the team to dig through the ancient layers. That’s why Alison Telfer, the Museum of London Archaeology expert, joined the team this season, because of her expertise in excavating waterlogged environments thanks to years of digging in soggy London.

After weeks of excavation, the team found three levels of masonry and a step. The stonework is exceptional, dry wall construction of precision-cut volcanic tufa blocks that are still beautifully flush even after millennia.

Terrenato says the archaeologists had to fight claustrophobia to be able to spend as much as 8 hours a day at the bottom of that trench.

“You’re in a very deep hole, and although you know in theory that the sheeting is going to hold everything up, there is a primal part of your brain that tells you to get out of there, if the walls come closing in there’s not going to be any way out for you,” he says.

The foundations of the temple of Fortuna were visible for only three days — for security reasons, the team could not leave the trench open and it had to be filled up again.

To the west of the temple remains was discovered a large bank of clay that is so straight is can’t have been formed by human hands. Archaeologists believe it may have been built up against a vertical structure that is now gone, perhaps a wooden form that was removed or wall that has long since decayed. It could have been a river wall to protect the temple from flooding or perhaps used during the construction of the temple. About halfway down the clay bank, the team unearthed a group of vessels that are thought to have been votive offerings, sacrifices to the gods that were placed on the site when the bank was being built.

The area in which the temple remains were discovered was known as the Forum Boarium, meaning “cattle market,” a center of trade on a bend in the river that was both a natural harbour and a crossing point of the Tiber. When the temple was built, Rome was already trading with the likes of Cyprus, Lebanon and Egypt as well as Italian peoples including the Latins, Etruscans and Sabines. The temple was deliberately built on the harbour so that it would welcome visitors and merchants, standing as a symbol of good will and fair trade guaranteed by the deity.

Archaeologists believe the temple was dedicated to the goddess Fortuna. It was dismantled in the early Republican period, around the 5th century B.C., and replaced with twin temples dedicated to Fortuna and Mater Matuta, a Latin mother goddess whose temples have been found on other ports. The temples were added to and rebuilt over the centuries through at least the second century A.D. In the sixth century an early Christian church was built on the site. The podium of the twin temples, made out of tufa slabs, still survives. It is now part of the foundation of the church of Sant’Omobono.

And that’s not all this archaeological site has to offer. Since it was first discovered during the burst of Fascist construction in the city center in the 1930s, the Sant’Omobono area has revealed evidence from 17 different phases of human occupation, from pottery sherds that date to between the 16th and the 12th centuries B.C., some of the earliest artifacts ever found indicating human habitation of the spot that would become Rome, to the remains of wattle and daub structures from the seventh century B.C.

To read Alison Telfer’s short and ever so sweet weekly reports on the dig, see the Museum of London Archaeology website. Keep an eye on the Sant’Omobono Project’s publications page for upcoming papers on the newly discovered temple and other finds from the season.


Two new Sappho poems discovered

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Although the 7th century B.C. Greek lyric poet Sappho of Lesbos was one of the most revered poets of antiquity and highly prolific, by the Middle Ages most of her works were lost. Only one complete poem and parts of four others have survived, including three fragments among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Now two new poems have been found on a 3rd century A.D. papyrus in private hands.

The anonymous owner brought the papyrus to Oxford University classicist and papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink who recognized its enormous significance. The condition is exceptional. Harvard classics professor Albert Henrichs calls it the best preserved Sappho papyrus known to survive. The two poems are 20 and nine lines each, with a total of 22 lines preserved in their entire length. The last seven lines are missing three to six letters from the beginning and end of verses and there are only traces of the last line remaining.

The subject matter is even more exciting than the condition.

One of the two recovered poems, Prof. Henrichs notes, speaks of a “Charaxos” and a “Larichos,” the names assigned by ancient sources to two of Sappho’s brothers but never before found in Sappho’s own writings. It has as a result been labeled the Brothers poem by Prof. Obbink.

“There will be endless discussion about Charaxos and Larichos, who may or may not be Sappho’s brothers,” Prof. Henrichs commented. One important point in that debate will be the Brothers poem’s clear implication that Charaxos was a sea-going trader. The historian Herodotus, writing about two centuries after Sappho, also describes Charaxos as a wayfarer—a man who traveled to Egypt, where he spent a fortune to buy the freedom of Rhodopis, a beautiful slave he had fallen in love with. Upon his return home, Herodotus relates, Sappho brutally mocked her brother’s lovestruck folly in one of her poems.

The Brothers poem contains no such mockery, but rather depicts an exchange between two people concerned about the success of Charaxos’ latest sea voyage. The speaker — perhaps Sappho herself, but the loss of the poem’s initial lines makes this unclear — advises that a prayer to Hera would be the best way to ensure this success, and expounds on the power of the gods to aid their favorites. The poem’s final stanza speaks of Larichos, presumably Sappho’s younger brother, “becoming a man…and freeing us [Sappho’s family?] from much heartache.”

The second poem is an appeal to the goddess Aphrodite, possibly a prayer for aid in securing the affections of a new lover.

The source of the papyrus is not known. It’s most likely to have come from Egypt where the dry climate preserves papyrus like the Oxyrhynchus fragments.

Dr. Obbink has published a paper about the discovery which is available online here (pdf). It includes a transcription (not a translation) of the text, so those of you who can read Aeolic Greek can read the full poems.

UPDATE: The Telegraph has a translation of the Brothers Poem!

Still, you keep on twittering that Charaxos
comes, his boat full. That kind of thing I reckon
Zeus and his fellow gods know; and you mustn’t
make the assumption;
rather, command me, let me be an envoy
praying intensely to the throne of Hera
who could lead him, he and his boat arriving
here, my Charaxos,
finding me safely; let us then divert all
other concerns on to the lesser spirits;
after all, after hurricanes the clear skies
rapidly follow;
and the ones whose fate the Olympian ruler
wants to transform from troubles into better –
they are much blessed, they go about rejoicing
in their good fortune.
As for me, if Larichos reaches manhood,
[if he could manage to be rich and leisured,]
he would give me, so heavy-hearted, such a
swift liberation.


Grog was made from local and imported ingredients

Friday, January 17th, 2014

A new study on residue found in Scandinavian artifacts from 1500 B.C. to the first century A.D. has revealed that the wide variety of ingredients used to make Nordic grog ranged from local fruits, grains, herbs and spices to grape wine imported from southern or central Europe. The ancient sources on the grog question are all Greek and Roman, written a thousand plus years after the earliest archaeological evidence. They aren’t exactly objective either, clearly disdaining the barbarous northern rustics and their uncouth alcoholic beverages. First century B.C. Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus said the Celtic fermented brew was made out of “barley rotted in water.” His contemporary Diodorus Siculus said they strained their thick drinks through their mustaches.

These descriptions are less than useful from an archaeological perspective. They are aren’t geographically specific beyond referring to peoples north of the Alps and don’t delve into the details of the ingredients. To find out what Bronze and Iron Age Nordic grog was made of, therefore, researchers turned to artifacts discovered in burials and hoards from Denmark and Sweden.

Four archaeological samples were chosen. The oldest is a jar buried with a warrior in a tumulus in Nandrup, Jutland, northwest Denmark, that dates to Period II of the Nordic Bronze Age (ca. 1500–1300 B.C.). The second is a strainer found in a hoard in Kostræde, southwest of Copenhagen, which dates to the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1100–500 B.C.). The third sample came from a large bronze bucket (situla in Latin) found in the grave of a high-status woman in Juellinge, on the island of Lolland, southeast Denmark. It dates to the Early Roman Iron Age (ca. 200 B.C.). The last artifact tested in the study is a long-handled strainer-cup from a bronze wine-set from the Early Roman Iron Age (first century A.D.) that was buried next to a ring fort in Havor on the Swedish island of Gotland.

All four of the artifacts have ancient residue still attached in sufficient quantities to be tested for their composition. Researchers used a combination of analytic techniques including microscopic examination, infrared spectrometry and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.

In the Nandrup jar, the residue was entirely composed by pollens — lime tree, meadowsweet and white clover — indicating the presence of a honey product. It wasn’t just honey, though. The residue is from an evaporated liquid and given the lack of any other elements in the residue, researchers believe the vessel contained unadulterated mead.

Honey was a rare and expensive commodity in the days before hive cultivation. Pure mead was reserved only for the elite, although the more ingredient-rich hybrid drinks could also be high status. The incredibly well-preserved grave of a young woman, a priestess or ritual dancer, from the same era found at Egtved in Jutland contained a birch bucket with residue of bog cranberries, cowberries, wheat grains, bog myrtle filaments, lime tree pollen, meadowsweet, and white clover. So it seems she was buried with the same mead the warrior had in his grave, but with the addition of barley beer and fruit elements.

The Kostræde sample returned birch tree resin, beeswax, pine resin, azelaic acid (probably a derivative of oleic acid, found in a variety of plants, but could also come from grains like wheat, rye, and barley), juniper, herb bog myrtle, grape wine and eucalyptol, a compound found in mugwort, cranberry and rosemary. In the Juellinge residue, testing discovered the remains of barley, bog cranberry, lingonberry, juniper, herb yarrow, grape wine, bog myrtle and yeast. The Havor sample was found to contain birch tree resin, plant products, grape wine and eucalyptol.

This is the first chemical proof of the use of bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper, birch tree resin and grape wine in Nordic grog. It testifies to the hybrid nature of fermented beverages in Bronze and Iron Age Scandinavia, how diverse the ingredients were. The discovery of the wine elements is particularly significant.

It demonstrates the social and ceremonial prestige attached to wine, especially when it was served up as ‘Nordic grog’ in special wine-sets imported from the south. It also points to an active trading network across Europe as early as the Bronze Age in which amber might have been the principle good exchanged for wine. The presence of pine resin in the beverages likely derives from the imported wine, added as a preservative for its long journey northward.


Tomb of pharaoh from Abydos dynasty found

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Penn Museum archaeologists have discovered the tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh from Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, ca. 1650 B.C., in Abydos. The new pharaoh’s name is Woseribre Senebkay and his tomb was found next to that of 13th Dynasty pharaoh Sobekhotep I last week.

The tomb of Senebkay consists of four chambers with a decorated limestone burial chamber. The burial chamber is painted with images of the goddesses Nut, Nephthys, Selket, and Isis flanking the king’s canopic shrine. Other texts name the sons of Horus and record the king’s titulary and identify him as the “king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Woseribre, the son of Re, Senebkay.”

Senebkay’s tomb was badly plundered by ancient tomb robbers who had ripped apart the king’s mummy as well as stripped the pharaoh’s tomb equipment of its gilded surfaces. Nevertheless, the Penn Museum archaeologists recovered the remains of king Senebkay amidst debris of his fragmentary coffin, funerary mask, and canopic chest. Preliminary work on the king’s skeleton of Senebkay by Penn graduate students Paul Verhelst and Matthew Olson (of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations) indicates he was a man of moderate height, ca. 1.75 m (5’10), and died in his mid to late 40s.

This is a highly significant discovery because it confirms that there was an independent ruling dynasty in Abydos contemporary with the dynasties ruling northern and southern Egypt. The northern 15th Dynasty rulers were Hyksos, invaders from what are today Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Down south in Thebes the 16th Dynasty was native Egyptian. Right around the time the Kingdom of Abydos ended, ca. 1600 B.C., the Thebans began a war to expel the occupiers in the north and re-unify Egypt. The war lasted 50 years. The Hyksos were defeated and the New Kingdom founded.

This Abydos Dynasty may have been a kind of buffer state between the two. They used the Anubis-Mountain area of South Abydos as a royal necropolis conveniently located next to the richer tombs of Middle Kingdom pharaohs like Sobekhotep I. There are approximately 16 tombs from the Abydos dynasty in the necropolis which range in date from 1650–1600 B.C., making Senebkay one of the first to be buried.

The archaeological team has located 10 of the possible 16 tombs. Six of them have been excavated; four have been detected by ground penetrating radar but not entered yet. Four of the six explored tombs had been gutted by ancient looters, but tomb number five had the remains of Senebkay. The cedar canopic chest that held his organs was, shall we say, borrowed from Sobekhotep I’s tomb. We know this because his name is still on it, although Senebkay’s people tried to obscure the name by gilding the chest.

That’s not the only piece of Sobekhotep’s funerary regalia to get recycled. The 60-ton red quartzite sarcophagus originally in his tomb was discovered in the sixth tomb of the Abydos kings. Archaeologists haven’t yet found a cartouche or any other information that might identify the pharaoh who pilfered the massive sarcophagus, but they think that wasn’t the first time it was re-used by the Abydos rulers.

The short-lived dynasty fills in a hole in the Turin King List. The ancient papyrus from the reign of Ramses II (ca. 1200 B.C.) has been damaged. There are two partial king names that read as “Woser…re” that top a list that originally had more than a dozen king names but now all have been lost.

The Abydos kings were nowhere near as wealthy and powerful as their neighbors to north and south. Senebkay’s limestone tomb is small and poorly appointed. The painting is colorful and lovely, but it’s fairly unsophisticated and sparse. This is probably why they recycled older pharaoh’s fancy gear.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time archaeologists have stumbled on these tombs. Legendary Egyptologist Flinders Petri unearthed four of the tomb in 1901-1902, but he didn’t recognize them as royal or even high-status tombs because of how modest they are.

The excavation season is over for now, but team leader Josef Wegner of the University of Pennsylvania believes they will discover much more about the Abydos dynasty when they return in the spring. King’s tombs are usually flanked by the tombs of queens, courtiers and other important officials.


Adena Mound dated to first century A.D.

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

The burial mound of the Adena culture on west side of the Scioto River in Chillicothe, Ohio, has been radiocarbon dated to the first century A.D. The Adena culture extended from around 800 B.C. to 200 A.D., a time known as the Early Woodland period, and until now, that thousand-year range was as specific as archaeologists could get in dating the Adena Mound. There were multiple ancient American mounds in the area, but this particular mound is the type site, the find considered the most representative of the culture. In this case, it’s also the source of the name of the ancient peoples because the mound was located on the estate of Ohio Governor Thomas Worthington, an estate he named Adena, the Hebrew word for “delightful place.” Thus the pinpointing of its age sheds a whole new light on the early history of Ohio and the United States.

There is nothing left of Adena Mound today. Almost 27 feet high, 140 feet in diameter with a circumference of 445 feet as measured in 1901, the once dominant mound is now a slight bump in the road in a Chillicothe subdivision. In the 1840s, archaeologists excavated the Mound City tumuli north of Adena Mound and Chillicothe group of mounds south of it. They tried to do the same to Adena Mound, but the Worthington family (the governor himself died in 1827) refused to allow any digging. It wasn’t until the property was sold to Joseph Froehlich in the waning days of the 19th century that the virgin mound, topped with mature trees, was cleared and excavated.

It was William C. Mills, curator of archaeology of the Ohio Historical Society, who took on the job. According to his published account, he was saving the mound’s archaeological importance in the nick of time because Froehlich wanted to use the fertile alluvial valley soil for farming and so planned to destroy the mound. According to a letter Mills wrote to a colleague in February of 1901, however, he had approached Froehlich proposing a dig as soon as the property left Worthington hands so he wasn’t so much a savior as an opportunist at best, instigator at worst.

In June of 1901, Mills signed a contract with Froehlich to excavate the mound and dump the compacted earth from which it was built in a nearby cut of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Froehlich cleared all the trees from the surface first, then Mills’ team started at the top and dug down in five foot sections. He found three strata, layers of construction and use. The first and earliest layer was made of dark sand from neighboring Lake Ellensmere. It was packed together so hard diggers had to use pickaxes to budge it. The second layer was lighter sand mixed with soil. The third was leaf mould, most likely a natural accumulation from when the mound was covered with trees.

Mills found human remains in both construction layers. The earliest stratum had 23 burials, the second 13. The burial practices differed significantly between the two stages. The first round of burials were concentrated at the base of the mound and were considerably more elaborate. The deceased were wrapped in bark and/or textiles and buried in crypts made of logs. The second period burials were spread out and had no log crypts. The grave goods were also far more dense in the first period. Twenty of the 23 burials included funerary objects while only four of the 13 second period burials included funerary offerings.

One particular burial stood out. Burial 21, found at the north base of the mound, was an adult male buried in a large sepulcher made of logs up to 17 inches in diameter. The floor was made of bark and the roof of smaller logs and brush. Grave goods buried with this man included 500 shell beads, once sewn to a loincloth, three strings of bone beads and freshwater pearls, a raccoon effigy carved out of a shell, seven flint spear points, three flint knives and three antler spear points. It was what he held in his left hand that made Mills’ heart sing: it was a pipe carved into the effigy of a man, deity or anthropomorphic figure of some kind.

The Adena Effigy Pipe, as it became known, is the first representation of a human in Ohio history. Carved out of pipestone, a form of catlinite native to the hills along the Scioto River which is soft when first quarried but hardens when exposed to air and heat, the Adena Pipe is one of a kind. Plenty of Adena pipes have been found, but they’re relatively simple tubular pieces with a widened bottom for the bowl and a hole at the top for a mouthpiece. This is the only Adena pipe ever discovered to be carved in the shape of a person. It is eight inches tall and weighs a pound, significant heft for a pipe. The figure wears large ear spools in his pierced ears (round jewelry had been found in burial mounds before, but the Adena Effigy Pipe provided the explanation for their use) and an unusual loincloth decorated with carved lines in the front that may be stylized animal figures and a feather bustle in the back.

Last May the Adena Pipe was named the official state artifact of Ohio thanks to the indefatigable lobbying efforts of four years of Fourth-graders at the Columbus School for Girls. Still, its precise date remained as much a mystery as the dates for the rest of the mound. Along with former Ohio State University provost Richard Sisson, the Columbus School for Girls helped raise the funds to finance the new C-14 dating.

It was Mills’ foresight that made the new dating possible. Despite the horrifying destructiveness and hastiness of the dig — the mound was busted down to nothing by the end of 1901 — and the vague disposition of the human remains, at least one set of which appears to have been shipped to the Smithsonian while the rest are lost, Mills made a point of keeping several pieces of black locust tree bark used to line the central burial in the mound and fragments of coarsely woven cloth found within. There was nothing he could do with them at the time. They weren’t pretty, so no institution would be interested in displaying or studying them. There was no radiocarbon dating in 1901. Even after there was nearly 50 years later (Willard Libby led the team that discovered carbon-14 dating in 1949), for decades the sample size required to date organic materials was so large the Adena Mound specimens could not be tested.

Advances in technology now make it possible to obtain dates from much smaller samples. Using two pieces of bark and a piece of the textile, researchers were able to obtain three dates. The bark samples both dated to around 40 A.D. The cloth is older, dating to 140 B.C. Archaeologists believe it was an heirloom textile used to enshroud the dead.

Bradley T. Lepper, Mills’ heir as curator of archaeology for the Ohio Historical Society and co-author of the dating study, explains its significance:

If we are to understand the historical processes that led to the rise of the Hopewell culture from its roots in the preceding Adena culture, we first have to be able to place key events into a reliable chronological framework.

The Adena Mound, as the type site of the Adena culture, is an important cultural landmark in Ohio’s past. Knowing its relationship, in time as well as space, to the other earthworks in the Scioto Valley will help archaeologists eventually write the history of this important chapter of our past.


World’s oldest times table found in bamboo strips

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

Researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing have discovered the world’s oldest decimal multiplication table on 21 strips of bamboo made around 305 B.C., during the Warring States period before Qin Shi Huang unified China as the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. Old Babylonian cuneiform tablets have been discovered with mathematical tables, including times tables, from around 2,000 B.C., but the Babylonians used a local base-60 notation. The Chinese strips long pre-date the first known European decimal multiplication tables which are from the Renaissance.

The historic table was part of a large collection of 2,500 bamboo strips donated to the university five years ago. The donor had purchased them at a market in Honk Kong, but the artifacts showed the tell-tale signs of having been recently looted from a tomb. They were in abysmal condition — stinking and covered in mud and mold — and in no particular order. The strips are less than a half-inch in width at most and half a meter (just under 1’8″) long. Each strip has ancient Chinese calligraphy painted on the surface.

Deciphering them was no small task. After radiocarbon dating and conservation, researchers spent years puzzling together the strips which when knew were connected with strings forming a readable manuscript. Trying to figure out how such a massive collection of strips related to each other 2,300 years later with the strings long and gone and damaged or lost strips was like solving a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the lid to go by and lots of missing pieces. Eventually they were able to figure out that the bamboo strips formed 65 ancient texts.

Twenty-one of the 2,500 strips stood out from the rest because they were painted only with numbers. Feng Lisheng, historian of mathematics at Tsinghua University, and his team found that when arranged in the proper order, those 21 strips formed a multiplication matrix, just like the ones in the back of notebooks when I was a kid.

The top row and the rightmost column contain, arranged from right to left and from top to bottom respectively, the same 19 numbers: 0.5; the integers from 1 to 9; and multiples of 10 from 10 to 90.

As in a modern multiplication table, the entries at the intersection of each row and column in the matrix provide the results of multiplying the corresponding numbers. The table can also help users to multiply any whole or half integer between 0.5 and 99.5. Numbers that are not directly represented, says Feng, first have to be converted into a series of additions. For instance, 22.5 × 35.5 can be broken up into (20 + 2 + 0.5) × (30 + 5 + 0.5). That gives 9 separate multiplications (20 × 30, 20 × 5, 20 × 0.5, 2 × 30, and so on), each of which can be read off the table. The final result can be obtained by adding up the answers. “It’s effectively an ancient calculator,” says Li [Junming, a historian and palaeographer at Tsinghua].

And a highly versatile one at that, although there’s no way of knowing exactly which functions would have been used in what context 2,300 years ago. Possible practical uses of the table include calculating surface idea, crop yields and taxes. It could also have been used for theoretical math or teaching.

“The discovery is of extraordinary interest,” says Joseph Dauben, a maths historian at City University of New York. “It’s the earliest artefact of a decimal multiplication table in the world.”

It “certainly shows that a highly sophisticated arithmetic had been established for both theoretical and commercial purposes by the Warring States period in ancient China,” he adds.

It’s considerably more advanced than later times tables produced in the Qin Dynasty. Those tables date to between 221 and 206 B.C. and they’re simple sentences like the kind you recited in class of the “two times one is two, two times two is four, two times three is six” variety. You can’t really use sentences to calculate elaborate multiplications, never mind divisions, square roots, etc. in the same way you can with a matrix. Qin Shi Huang did a lot of book burning in his efforts to forcibly unify Chinese scholarship just as he had Chinese territory. Perhaps matrix multiplication tables were part of what was lost in Qin’s Procrustean reformation of China’s intellectual tradition.


Tomb of Pharaoh Sobekhotep I found in Abydos

Monday, January 6th, 2014

University of Pennsylvania have discovered the tomb of little-known 13th Dynasty pharaoh Sobekhotep I at the archaeological site of Abydos 300 miles south of Cairo. The team unearthed the massive 60-ton red quartzite sarcophagus last year but wasn’t able to identify its owner until last week when they found fragments of a stele inscribed with the pharaoh’s cartouche and depicting him enthroned.

The tomb was built out of limestone from the Tura quarries near Cairo and was originally topped by a pyramid, now gone. The handful of other 13th Dynasty pharaonic tombs that have been discovered are in the royal necropoli of Dashur, 25 miles south of Cairo, and Saqqara, 19 miles south of Cairo. They too were topped by pyramids, only parts of which survive.

Inside the tomb archaeologists found canopic jars that once held the pharaoh’s viscera so they could be reunited with their mummified owner in the afterlife and some gold funerary objects.

This is a highly significant find because the history of the 13th Dynasty rulers is nebulous. Historians aren’t even sure of when the dynasty began — 1803 B.C. and 1781 B.C. are the leading contenders — never mind who ruled when. Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said in a statement that Sobekhotep I “is likely the first who ruled Egypt at the start of the 13th dynasty during the second intermediate period” but there is no consensus on that point among Egyptologists. According to the Turin King List, a papyrus written during the reign of Ramesses II (1279–1213 B.C.) that lists all the kings of Egypt up until that time, grouping them together in vaguely dynastic clusters and noting the dates of their reigns, puts Sobekhotep somewhere in the 13th Dynasty but it’s unclear where it begins and the 12th ends. There’s also some confusion about whether the Turin list is Sobekhotep I or Sobekhotep II, another pharaoh of the 13th Dynasty of the same name who may or may not be the same person as Sobekhotep I.

Before now, other than his presence on the Turin King List all we know about Sobekhotep I has come from reliefs in an Abydos chapel. According to Antiquities Ministry official Ayman El-Damarani, Sobekhotep I ruled Egypt for four and a half years, but that presumes he’s the first pharaoh of the dynasty who is known from various sources as Khutawyre, Wegaf and Sekhemre Khutawy Sobekhotep. University of Copenhagen Egyptologist Kim Ryholt places Sekhemre Khutawy as the dynasty founder, with Sobekhotep I ruling for about three years between 1780 and 1777 B.C.

With all these disputed and conflicting sources, you can see why the discovery of the pharaoh’s tomb is a major boon to Egyptologists. It has the potential to answer a lot of questions.


Pharaonic brewer’s tomb found in Luxor

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Archaeologists from Tokyo’s Waseda University have unearthed the richly decorated tomb of an ancient brewer on the west bank of the Nile opposite Luxor. The team has been excavating the necropolis of El-Khokha since late 2007. Also called the Valley of the Nobles, it’s an area known for its tombs of royal officials and aristocrats mainly from the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties. The clearing of the modern hamlets of Sheikh Adb el-Qurna and el Khokha (a long and ugly controversy, see here for an overview) has left debris in the area that needs clearing and opened more of the site to archaeological exploration.

The Waseda University archaeologists were cleaning the courtyard of tomb TT47, final resting place of Userhat, overseer of the royal harem and an important official at the court of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III (father of Akhenaten the apostate and grandfather of boy king Tutankhamun) when they discovered the entrance to a T-shaped tomb. Inside they found beautifully painted ceilings and walls that identified its owner as Khonso-Im-Heb, head of beer production for mother goddess Mut and the head of the royal storehouses during the Ramesside era (a period between 1292–1069 B.C. when eleven 19th and 20th Dynasty pharaohs took the name Rameses).

The murals are in excellent condition, brightly colored and mostly intact. They depict scenes of daily life in Khonso-Im-Heb’s family and religious rituals, some of which he participates in alongside his wife and children. One wall features the famous Opening of the Mouth ritual wherein priests of Anubis and the decedant’s heir magically opened the mouth of a statue or mummy so that it could breathe and speak in the afterlife. The ceiling is painted with colorful geometrical designs around a solar boat.

The tomb has two intersecting halls in a T-shape and a burial chamber. One side of it adjoins and is connected to another tomb belonging to someone named Houn. We don’t know anything more about him at this time. Once the tombs have been fully excavated and documented, the brewer’s tomb will be conserved with an eye to opening it up to tourists.

People like bright colors, and drawing tourists is a big problem for Egypt and Luxor in particular right now. The bottom has completely fallen out of the tourist trade because of the political upheaval of the past two years. Meanwhile, budget shortfalls have ministerial instability have left archaeological sites and museums unguarded and prey to looters. That’s why Mohammed Ibrahim made a point of announcing that security at the site would be increased while excavations are ongoing.


Giraffe leg on the menu for Pompeii middle class

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

A multi-year University of Cincinnati excavation of two city blocks in the shadow of the busy Porta Stabia gate has revealed an unexpected variety of foods from cheap local forage like nuts to expensive imported meats like giraffe leg. The team studied artifacts discovered at Insula VIII.7.1-15 and Insula I.1 during the 19th and early 20th century excavations, tracking them all down in various museums and adding them to a database, and excavated waste collected in drains, latrines and cesspits. The kitchen discards and mineralized excrement provide a direct window into the diets of the middle and lower classes who frequented and lived in the neighborhood.

Adjacent to the Large Theater, the Triangular forum, the Covered Theater and the Quadroporticus (probably an open air gymnasium), by the time of the 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius that sealed the city’s doom, the two insulae included 10 building plots and 20 shop fronts. They were in the heart of the city’s entertainment district, a bustling area for the hospitality and food trades with a lot of foot traffic from the Porta Stabia, Pompeii’s oldest gate. Indeed, excavations discovered evidence of very old buildings in the center of Insula VIII.7 dating back as far as the 4th century B.C. when they appear to have been dedicated to industrial use. This was small scale stuff, cottage industries, basically. Most of them appear to have been salted fish operations, although one tannery was unearthed, a significant find since it’s only the second tannery ever discovered at Pompeii.

A gap in the record after the 4th century B.C. suggests the area (other parts of Pompeii have the same gap) was abandoned only to resume bustling in the mid-2nd century B.C. with the untrammeled rise of Roman control after the Third Punic War. The Porta Stabia neighborhood saw a major revival in the early 1st century A.D. The factories were demolished and floors and walls built over them. The small-scale industry was replaced by retail operations, storefronts and restaurants, to cater to the crowds in the neighborhood to see a show or traveling through the gate. Not all storefronts and restaurants are created equal, however, and there were big differences in quality and expense of products from one shop to then next.

“The material from the drains revealed a range and quantity of materials to suggest a rather clear socio-economic distinction between the activities and consumption habits of each property, which were otherwise indistinguishable hospitality businesses,” says [University of Cincinnati associate professor of classics Steven] Ellis. Findings revealed foods that would have been inexpensive and widely available, such as grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish and chicken eggs, as well as minimal cuts of more expensive meat and salted fish from Spain. Waste from neighboring drains would also turn up less of a variety of foods, revealing a socioeconomic distinction between neighbors.

A drain from a central property revealed a richer variety of foods as well as imports from outside Italy, such as shellfish, sea urchin and even delicacies including the butchered leg joint of a giraffe.

“That the bone represents the height of exotic food is underscored by the fact that this is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy,” says Ellis. “How part of the animal, butchered, came to be a kitchen scrap in a seemingly standard Pompeian restaurant not only speaks to long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also something of the richness, variety and range of a non-elite diet.”

Deposits also included exotic and imported spices, some from as far away as Indonesia.

I love these kinds of studies because a) ancient poop is awesome, and b) because they underscore how wide-reaching the improved standard of living was for people in the Roman Empire. There were haves and have-nots to a huge degree, of course, what with the vast heaving mass of slaves underpinning the economy, but you didn’t have to be rich to have access to expensive delicacies like giraffe leg and imported Spanish fish. Trade networks and mass production allowed regular people to live with day-to-day comforts like a constant supply of staples (olive oil, bread, bacteria-fermented fish intestine sauce aka garum), lamps, roof tiles and weird takeout.