Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Stone armor pit at Terracotta Army tomb excavated

Friday, December 20th, 2013

The mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (reigned 247 B.C. – 220 B.C.) is famous for the vast Terracotta Army interred with him to protect him in the afterlife. Only a fraction of the warrior pits have been excavated. There are an estimated 8,000 warriors and horses in the three main pits. Two thousand have been unearthed, and just over half of them are in good enough condition to be on display. The Terracotta Warriors aren’t even in the main tomb. They’re a garrison just under a mile (1.5 kilometers) east of the emperor’s tomb, which is a mound 250 feet high.

The emperor’s tomb is at the center of the underground palace necropolis. While the imperial burial itself remains largely unexcavated, archaeologists have dug around it and found chariots, horses, terracotta court officials, terracotta acrobats, musicians, strongmen, bronze birds, the remains of real sacrificed horses served by terracotta grooms, mass graves of some of the estimated 700,000 workmen who labored 38 years in the construction of the necropolis complex.

In 1998, Chinese archaeologists unearthed a burial chamber to the southeast of the tomb mound. There they excavated more than 80 sets of ceremonial armor made out of limestone plates, forty helmets and horse armor. The armor was made out of limestone plates, more than 600 individual plates per set, which were connected by bronze wires that gave the plate enough flexibility to allow theoretical movement. This was not actual usable armor, however. They’re stone copies of the two kinds of armor that were used: the leather armor with rectangular plates of the common soldier and the iron fish-scale armor of the generals.

The artisans who created the stone armor painstakingly created each individual plate by hand, using sandstone to grind them to a consistent thickness of .3 centimeters. They perforated the plates repeatedly so that the bronze wires could be threaded through. This was a significant technical challenge, because the thin limestone plates are easily cracked. Archaeologists believe the stone was kept constantly wet while craftsmen drilled the holes with an iron spiral hand drill. There are six to 14 holes on each plate. When they experimented with replica materials, archaeologists found it took about three minutes to drill one hole. That means in drilling time alone, the plates for a single set of armor would have taken 350 work hours to complete.

The armor in the pit is in multiple layers, some containing relatively complete sets still connected, some with a jumble of strewn plates, some in good condition, some burned, possibly by the dastardly Xiang Yu. Archaeologists weren’t able to remove the armor plates that were still connected with the bronze wire, so, tragically, they cut the wires, pulled them out and then recovered the individual plates. Obviously this was very far from ideal, what with the destruction of priceless historical material, so researchers went back to the drawing board to figure out some way to remove the armor while still intact.

Experiments with cyclododecane (CDD), a consolidant compound that is liquid at around 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees C) and forms a wax-like coating when it solidifies. At ambient temperatures, it steadily sublimes until it’s gone. After years of trials, in 2004, CDD-impregnated cotton gauze was applied to a section of armor. It worked like a charm, essentially gluing the armor together. The section was encased in cardboard frame reinforced with wood. The frame was filled with polyurethane foam and straps were embedded in it. Once the poly foam had fully hardened, archaeologists pulled on the straps and the whole thing came out cleanly. No pieces were lost or damaged. The bottom of the plates and wires were cleaned, then the poly and CDD removed and the top cleaned.

The test was so successful that in 2005 a complete set of armor was removed from the pit. It was restored and put on display in the Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum at the mausoleum site and on the road.

Meanwhile, back at the pit, an estimated 6,000 more sets of armor slumbered in their thick layers. Now excavations have begun again and there is fantastic footage of the crazy puzzle of armor in the pit. I can’t embed it, but you can see the excavation in this CNTV video.


Sotheby’s to return looted statue to Cambodia

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Seven months after the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned a pair of 10th-century Khmer statues known as the Kneeling Attendants that had been looted from the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia, Sotheby’s has agreed to return a statue looted from the same temple that has pbeen blocked from sale for two years. It’s been a long, arduous process of diplomacy, negotiation and legal wrangling, none of it pretty and some of it impressively nasty, even for a cultural property dispute.

Our story begins more than a 1,000 years ago when King Jayavarman IV moved the capital of the Khmer Empire to Koh Ker, a remote site 75 miles northeast of Siem Reap and the previous capital of Angkor. It was 928 A.D. and up until this point, Khmer sculptural art was characterized by static figures, most of them carved bas reliefs of Hindu deities and mythology. Jayavarman IV commissioned a whole new style of carving for his new capital. In Koh Ker, statues of gods and warriors were made to be freestanding, their poses dynamic captures of figures in movement. One group in front of the western pavilion of Prasat Chen Temple featured 9 statues depicting the final battle between Duryodhana and his nemesis Bhima from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Massive 500-pound sandstone statues of the two enemies were posed facing each mid-fight, surrounded by their supporters.

Koh Ker only remained capital until 944, after which it decayed into ruin while the jungle reclaimed its former dominance. The site’s remoteness was both a blessing and a curse, contributing to its decay and keeping it safe from the kind of predation Angkor was victim to. It wasn’t until the 1950s that French archaeologists recognized Koh Ker’s historical significance and paid regular attention to it. In 1965, the site was explored and documented by Madeleine Giteau, curator of the National Museum, who found it exceptionally well-preserved with the statues and structures virtually untouched. When a French archaeologist returned two years later, he found looting had already begun, thanks in large part to the construction of a new road which made the removal of artifacts to Thailand for sale more practical. Political upheaval and spillover from the Vietnam War put a lot of local armed insurgent groups and foreign fighters in the area and made looting antiquities to sell for hard cash a particularly attractive prospect.

According to an amended complaint from the United States Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, the statue of Duryodhana was cut off its base in around 1972 by an organized network of looters and sold to a dealer in Bangkok. There it was purchased by Douglas Latchford, the same collector of Khmer art who donated the bodies of both Kneeling Attendants and one of their heads to the Met, who arranged for the illegal export of the statue to the London auction house of Spink & Son, the same auction house from which he either bought the Kneeling Attendants directly or acted as a front for the Met to buy them from, depending on whose story you believe. Spink & Son sold Duryodhana to a Belgian collector in 1975. The widow of said collector, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, consigned the statue to Sotheby’s for sale in 2010.

Duryodhana became the centerpiece of Sotheby’s Asian sale in March of 2011. He was on the cover of the catalog and was extolled as a unique and exceptional example of Khmer artistry. Just hours before it was to go on the block, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An sent a letter to the auction house officially requesting the return of the statue as an artifact illegally exported from Cambodia. Sotheby’s withdrew its flagship artifact, estimated to sell for $3 million – $4 million, from the sale. For a year after the first blocked sale attempt, Sotheby’s negotiated with the government of Cambodia to arrange a private sale. Hungarian art collector Istvan Zelnik volunteered to buy the statue for $1 million and donate it to Cambodia.

The talks fell through — Sotheby’s claimed it was the Department of Homeland Security’s fault because they pressured the Cambodian government not to agree to the sale so they could get all the kudos for a diplomatic arrangement; the US Attorney said it was Sotheby’s fault because they turned down the million dollar offer — and in April of 2012, the U.S. Attorney filed a civil suit in federal court seeking forfeiture of the statue on Cambodia’s behalf. Sotheby’s denied strenuously that there was sufficient evidence to prove the statue was looted (even though its matching feet are still in place in Koh Ker), denied knowing all along that it was stolen (even though there’s a long email discussion between the auction house and an expert they contracted to write up the statue before sale in which the expert underscores that it was recently removed from the temple but ultimately suggests they go ahead with the sale because her Cambodian sources say they have no interest in contesting it) and denied that there’s even an applicable law in Cambodian that makes the export of 1,000-year-old Khmer statues illegal.

On Thursday, December 12th, truce was called. Sotheby’s, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa and the federal government have come to an agreement and I’d say it’s a big win for Cambodia, although as so often happens everyone still gets to deny having willfully trafficked in stolen antiquities.

The Belgian woman who had consigned it for sale in 2011 will receive no compensation for the statue from Cambodia, and Sotheby’s has expressed a willingness to pick up the cost of shipping the 500-pound sandstone antiquity to that country within the next 90 days.

At the same time, lawyers from the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan who had been pursuing the statue on Cambodia’s behalf agreed to withdraw allegations that the auction house and the consignor knew of the statue’s disputed provenance before importing it for sale.

The accord said the consignor, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, who had long owned the statue, and Sotheby’s had “voluntarily determined, in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage,” that it should be returned.

Andrew Gully, a spokesman for Sotheby’s, said the auction house was gladdened that “the agreement confirms that Sotheby’s and its client acted properly at all times.”

:lol: Oh yes, ever so properly. At all times. And ever so voluntary too. It just took them two years and a federal court case to volunteer.

Now we’ll see if the last domino falls: the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena which owns Duryodhana’s counterpart, Bhima.


The Dying Gaul in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

One of the most famous masterpieces of Hellenistic sculpture, The Dying Gaul, has taken its first trip abroad since 1816 when it returned to Rome from 20 years’ exile in Paris, a sentence suffered by so much of Italy’s historical patrimony at Napoleon’s grasping hand. It is on view through March 16th, 2014, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., star of its own exhibition, The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome. The sculpture has been beautifully situated in a rotunda modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, underneath a banner with a detail of Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Ancient Rome, a capriccio, aka a fantasy scene in which all of ancient Rome’s greatest art and architecture is on display in a single gallery with The Dying Gaul in the left foreground.

This exhibition is the only time the masterpiece has ever been to the United States and it won’t be traveling to any other museums. If you want to see this incredible portrait of mortally wounded strength and nobility, you have three months to get to D.C.

The Dying Gaul is a 1st or 2nd century A.D. marble copy of what was probably a Hellenistic bronze original made between 230 B.C. and 220 B.C. to celebrate the victory of King Attalus I of Pergamon over the Celtic tribes of Galatia, an area of central Anatolia, now in Turkey. Gauls had immigrated there from Thrace after their invasion of the Balkans in 279 B.C. They had a reputation as fierce warriors and often sold their soldiering services to the squabbling factions of Asia Minor. Attalus’ defeat of them was considered a great victory because of their reputed strength in battle and the theme of defeated Gauls, stoic and powerful to the end, became a popular motif in Hellenistic art for several decades.

Pliny mentions in his Natural History that Epigonus, court sculptor to the Attalid kings of Pergamon, created a group of bronze sculptures of dying Gauls to decorate the terrace of the Temple of Athena Nikephoros in honor of Attalus’ victory. The original Dying Gaul is thought to have been one of them, as is the original of Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife. The Roman copies of both of those pieces were documented for the first time on the November 2nd, 1623, inventory of the Ludovisi collection. The estate of the powerful papal Ludovisi family corresponded with the famed Gardens of Sallust, a property outside of Rome that had once belonged to Julius Caesar and was later purchased by the Roman historian Sallust who made it into a lush garden so beautiful it was confiscated by Roman emperors and maintained for centuries as a public garden.

When the Ludovisi family began building their complex on the grounds in the early 17th century, they dug up Roman sculptures in impressive quantities and even more impressive quality. (See this entry for more about the Ludovisi collection and its painful dispersion in the 19th century.) The Dying Gaul, then thought to be a dying gladiator, was recognized as a masterpiece right away. Artist Ippolito Buzzi restored it with a comparatively light hand, more modest and respectful of the original than many of the other 17th and 18th century restorations. On March 29th, 1737, Pope Clement XII bought The Dying Gaul for 6,000 scudi, a huge amount at the time, and installed it in the Capitoline Museums.

There it remained for 60 years until Napoleon stepped into the picture. By the terms of the Treaty of Tolentino, the 1797 peace treaty between Directory France and the Papal States, all the art French troops had looted became official French property. the treaty also gave French officials the untrammeled right to literally walk into any building in the territory and pick whatever they wanted to send back to France. Napoleon had experts on the scene to ensure Italy’s greatest treasures would become France’s for the duration of his rule. After Napoleon’s final defeat, the Tolentino plunder was returned to Italy.

The timing was perfect for The Dying Gaul to seduce the flocks of Romantic artists and Grand Tourists. Lord Byron wrote about him in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Canto IV, Stanza CXL) just two years after the statue’s return to the Capitoline Museum.

I see before me the Gladiator lie:
He leans upon his hand — his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his droop’d head sinks gradually low –
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,
Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now
The arena swims around him — he is gone,
Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hail’d the wretch who won.

Many literary luminaries followed in his wake. Mark Twain gave The Dying Gaul a rare unsarcastic positive review in Innocents Abroad. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun opens on the sculpture. Henry James called it the “lion of the collection” in The Portrait of a Lady. The Gaul even gets a passing reference in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (bottom of the page here).

Because one of the greatest works of ancient art surviving doesn’t budge unless compelled by terms of sale or at bayonet-point, copies of The Dying Gaul are in museums, institutions of higher learning and private collections all over the world. Smugglerius is my personal favorite. Until his debut at the NGA last Thursday, that was as close as anybody outside of Italy was going to get to seeing him.


Ancient pig-shaped baby bottle found in Puglia

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Seventeen hundred years or so before the Majapahit Empire made the first piggy banks, the Messapii people in the heel of Italy were making baby bottles shaped like pigs. An excavation this May in Manduria, a town about 20 miles east of Taranto in the region of Puglia, unearthed a cut rock tomb painted with ocher, red and blue bands dating to around 4th century B.C. Inside the eight by four-foot tomb were the remains of two adults and approximately 30 funerary artifacts including an iron knife blade, pottery plates, vases, statuettes and three gutti, vessels with narrow necks and small openings from which liquids could be poured slowly, even in drops.

Gutti were used for pouring libations in sacrifices, to oil up bodies before scraping with a strigil and as baby bottles. Two of them were fairly plain, as is customary with gutti, but the third was shaped like an adorable piggy. Discovered completely intact, the piggy guttus has pointy ears and painted on human-like eyes with long, sweet eyelashes outlined in white. The elongated, slender snout is pierced at the end. That’s what the baby nursed from. It served another function too. Inside the pig’s body are small pieces of terracotta that made the pig a rattle once all the milk was finished. Feed the baby, then rattle him to sleep. It’s a clever combination and an extremely rare one.

Despite the presence of two baby bottles, one baby bottle/rattle and two female figurines characteristic of burials of young girls in Messapii graves, no infant remains were found. It’s possible that one of the adults was pregnant when she died and was poignantly buried with the artifacts she’d accumulated in expectation. It’s also possible that an infant was buried there but her delicate bones have disintegrated over time. The tomb is almost certainly familial, in keeping with Messapian custom.

Objects such as a black painted basin and an iron blade of a knife suggest a male burial, while a strong clue for a female burial came from a special Messapian pottery vase called trozzella. Featuring four little wheels at the tops of its handle, versions of the vase are often found in the graves of Messapian women.

“Analysis of the funerary objects and their context suggest that the two burials followed one another in the Hellenistic period, between the end of the fourth and the third-second centuries B.C.,” Alessio said.

This is the second largest Messapian tomb found in Manduria, which is notable because the town was an important city in the Messapii dodecapolis, a confederation of 12 cities which, while ruled by their own individual kings, came together for self-defense or in case of other need. The need arose pretty frequently, thanks to their frequent battles with, among others, the Greek colonists of Tarentum (now Taranto), although they had cordial trading relationships with other cities of Magna Grecia. Messapian fighters were renown for their cavalry and archery. Archidamus III, King of Sparta from 360 B.C. to 338 B.C., felt Messapian strength most keenly when he died at the walls of Manduria while aiding Tarentum in its war against several local Italic tribes.

The Messapii were conquered by Rome in 280 B.C. Their Indo-European language died out and was replaced by Latin and Greek. Inscriptions have survived but the language is still not fully translated.


Large gold fibula and pendants found in Denmark

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Metal detectorist Morten Kris Nielsen was exploring a farmer’s field near Spentrup on the Danish peninsula of Jutland when he found a gold fibula, a brooch used to fasten a cloak. Without even cleaning it, Nielsen brought it directly to archaeologist Benita Clemmensen at the Museum of Jutland. He was sure there was more where that came from, so that same day he returned to the find site and unearthed a second piece of the fibula and two crescent-shaped gold pendants with stylized birds’ heads at each end of the crescents. Museum archaeologists then excavated the spot and found another eight gold pendants, four of them in bird patterns, and a gold ring.

The archaeologists found that this small but extremely rare and valuable hoard was deposited in a bog, probably as a religious sacrifice, in the early 6th century A.D. Because Nielsen was so conscientious in reporting his finds without so much as rinsing them off, museum experts were able to find traces of dissolved glass in some of the many intricate channels of the fibula. There are surviving red semi-precious stones thought to be garnets on the piece, and the remains of a yellowish-green mass which may be glass.

The total gold weight of the hoard is 35 grams which is relatively modest, but the quality of the pieces is thoroughly immodest. The fibula is eight centimeters (just over three inches) long and is made out of a gold sheet wrapped around a clay core. The surface is festooned in tiny gold circles. Even tinier beads of gold like strands of pearls follow the edge of every section of the piece. In the second fragment of the fibula — a circle with stones or glass between spokes — there’s a gold waffle pattern underneath the stone settings that is reminiscent of some of the garnet pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard (see this hilt fitting, for instance).

On the bottom section of the buckle is a bird, outlined in gold with the tail, head, body and beak formed by inset red stones. The eye of the bird is cut into the middle of the head’s stone. Archaeologists think the fibula’s bird and the bird heads on six of the pendants probably represent ravens, important figures in Norse mythology (Odin had a pair named Huginn and Muninn who brought him news of the world every day) that are common motifs on jewelry from this period and later.

According to National Museum of Denmark archaeologist Peter Vang Petersen, only a few large gold fibulae of this type have been found in Denmark. They were made locally out of Roman gold with semi-precious stones imported from Scandinavia and Central Europe. This was high craftsmanship. The woman whose cloak this held together had to have been immensely wealthy and important, and the fact that she was able to sacrifice such riches suggests that she was wealthy beyond the mean of the Spentrup area which has never seen a treasure find like this before.

As for why she might have felt compelled to sacrifice such valuable pieces, it’s because the Norse gods preferred gold, not surprisingly, and when circumstances were grim, that was the kind of sacrifice you’d make. This period, the early sixth century, in the middle of the turbulent Migration Period, saw a great many gold votive deposits. On top of the political upheaval and mass movement of populations, the first half of the sixth century saw a climactic disruption that is recorded by historians from the Byzantine Empire to China to the Middle East to Europe. Probably as the result of a volcanic eruption, in 535-6 there was no summer and the sun’s rays were wan like during an eclipse. Famine, crop failure, freezing rivers followed, an unending winter that was a sure sign to the Norse that Ragnarok, the apocalyptic Twilight of the Gods, was nigh.

The Mosegård Church Hoard, as the gold has been dubbed because of its find site near the church, is on display at the Museum of East Jutland in Randers until December 19th, 2013, after which it will move to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen where it will be part of its Treasure Trove exhibition opening in January.


Mysterious Neolithic wood tridents on display

Friday, December 6th, 2013

Two large Neolithic wood tridents of unknown purpose have gone on display in the Tullie House Museum’s Border Gallery The artifacts were donated to the Carlisle museum, which is currently also hosting the spectacular Crosby-Garret Helmet, by the Cumbria County Council which owned the land on which they were found. The museum is delighted by the donation as it would have been hard pressed to afford them on the open market.

The tridents were discovered in 2009 during an archaeological survey in advance of the construction of the Carlisle Northern Development Route. They found such an incredible bonanza of Neolithic and Mesolithic artifacts that the excavation intended to last three mounts wound up taking three years to complete. Mesolithic flints alone were found in staggering numbers: 1,500 buckets of earth were sieved every week, a total of 270,000 liters of soil, in which around 314,000 stone pieces were discovered, including used tools and waste flakes. The site, an island between two paleochannels, was a major production center for stone tools in the late Mesolithic.

Its location in the flood plain of the River Eden also saw to the preservation of organic materials, thanks to the archaeologists’ best friend (because of how it preserves perishable remains) and worst enemy (because of the painful digging conditions requiring constant pumping and rubber trousers): waterlogged soil. Among many wooden artifacts retrieved from the watery pit were the two tridents. Carved out of a single piece of mature oak (the three was approximately 300 years old when felled), the tridents are two meters (six feet) long and have three straight-sided tines, although one tine is broken off on the most complete example and two tines are missing altogether on the other.

Radiocarbon dating of the sapwood at the outer edges of the trident revealed they date to between 3,900 and 3,300 B.C. Whoever carved those tridents from a mature hardwood only had stone tools to do the job. They must have been extremely difficult pieces to craft. Judging from the placement of the complete trident — the broken tine was carefully tucked beneath it — they weren’t simply discarded.

Unlike modern pitchforks, where the tines split from the haft is a horizontal step of sorts which adds to the mystery of what these tridents were used for. They were too heavy and blunt for use as fishing spears or digging forks. The tines could have been wrapped in skins and used as paddles, but this too is a far from ideal design for the task. Also, there’s also no evidence of use, no wear patterns, no chips or gouges.

There are only six of these rare pieces known to exist, and the other four were all discovered in the 19th century, two in Cumbria after the draining of Ehenside Tarn in the 19th century (find published in 1873), the other two in a peat bog in County Armargh, Ireland (published in 1857). Now that two more have been found in Cumbria again, archaeologists are wondering if there was some trade or cultural link between the Neolithic Cumbrians and the people in Neolithic Northern Ireland.

Andrew Mackay, Head of Collections & Programming at Tullie House said: “These tridents are so rare that they of national importance so it is a great thrill to have them available to show to the visitors of Tullie House. We are very keen to canvass opinion on what they might be so I’d like to encourage everyone to come and see them and let us know what they think.”

For more about the excavation and to browse tons of pictures of the finds, see Oxford Archaeology North’s fantastic website about the project.


Jupiter sculpture donated to Cambridge museum

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

A limestone head of Jupiter unearthed at the Earith quarry near Colne Fen in Cambridgeshire, eastern England, has been donated to Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The sculpture dates to between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. and was discovered during 10 years of excavations (1997 – 2007) done by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. It was donated to the museum by Hanson Aggregates, the owners of the quarry, and will go on display starting December 10th.

The sculpture’s rough appearance belies its historical significance. It is considered one of the finest Roman sculptures ever discovered in East Anglia.

Imogen Gunn, 33, collections manager for archaeology at the museum, said: “There’s a relatively small corpus of Roman sculpture from this area and this is definitely one of the best.

“And it’s always nice to be able to display things that are found locally – it always grabs people.”

Carved out of non-local limestone from Upwell in Norfolk, this Jupiter was once part of a larger monument. You can see a pair of paws perched above the cornice. Experts believe there was a lion, griffin or sphinx there once, but extensive excavation of the find site recovered no further fragments of the piece that might illuminate its full scope. That suggests the Jupiter section was brought to the area after it had already been separated from the rest of the monument.

Even as a fragment it would have been an expensive piece. It was probably reused as a funerary monument at The Camp Ground, telegraphing the wealth and importance of the deceased. Skeletal remains were discovered close by, but there’s no way of knowing if they were associated with the Earith Jupiter.

It was discovered at a site called The Camp Ground, in Roman times an inland port on the Car Dyke canal system with a settlement of 50 to 200 people on the edge of the marshy Fens. This was a large village for a Fenland community, probably a market center where people from neighboring farms came to sell, buy and trade their produce and stock. Because the canal system gave them access to the rest of the country and, via its link to the sea, lands foreign as well, a Norfolk limestone carving could easily, albeit not cheaply, have made its way to Earith over water.

On an unrelated note, museum volunteers made an amusing discovery while going through a collection of more than 1,000 animal bones found in a fish pond in the nearby town of St Neots in 1961. One of the bones, a bovine shoulder blade dating to the 16th century, had “I absolutely hate bones!” scribbled on it in marker along with an irate stick figure with a beehive hairdo and a skirt stamping her feet and making a hand gesture that looks distinctly like flipping the bird.

Ms Gunn said: “We have more than 1,000 bones from this dig. They would all have to be washed and marked with a site number and site code. There’s quite a lot of admin. You can see how that would start to get very boring. I’ve certainly felt that way, but I’ve never scribbled it on to a bone!” [...]

Ms Gunn added: “This is now the most interesting thing about these bones. It adds to their story.”



Neanderthals organized their living spaces

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Excavations at Riparo Bombrini, a collapsed rock shelter in the Balzi Rossi Paleolithic site complex in Liguria, near the Italian-French border, have revealed that the Neanderthals who lived there for thousands of years in the late Middle Paleolithic organized their living spaces much like modern humans. (The full paper published in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology can be read gratis here.) Many researchers have identified clearly structured and patterned uses of space as a marker of modern human behavior, but some recent discoveries of Neanderthal dwellings have cast doubt on that classification. The Riparo Bombrini finds provide extensive evidence that the Neanderthals of the Late Mousterian era (the oldest there date to around 45,000 years ago) compartmentalized the space by usage.

There are three main groupings of Mousterian occupation levels in the rock shelter. These are palimpsests, to be clear, composites of varied dates within a range, not individually dated occupation levels. The top level (labeled Level MS) appears to have been a task site likely dedicated to the slaughter, butchering and perhaps skin processing of game. Researchers found a dense concentration of animal bones in the top level towards the back of the shelter, the densest anywhere on the site. They also found abundant evidence of ochre in the same area. They don’t know what it was used for, but it has several work applications — tanning, gluing — or it could have had some ritual purpose.

The middle group (Levels M1-M5) was a long-term logistical base camp, as evidenced by a high density of animal bones, shells from edible shellfish and stone tools in the front of shelter’s mouth and a hearth at the back bounded by a clear area. The occupants appear to have done all the work that might result in irritating or dangerous debris at the mouth of the shelter and kept the back of the shelter, where people slept and socialized around the fire, clean.

Researchers believe the bottom group (Levels M6-M7) served as a short-term base camp. Unlike the other levels, here the remains of fauna are sparse while lithic debris (fragments of stone chipped away in the making and use of tools) is relatively dense. There is more stone debris just inside the shelter than outside in these levels, an indication that the area was used for temporary work stints, like for making tools, in the opening of the shelter where sunlight would have been most plentiful. It could also have been used as a dump site of sorts, to contain potentially dangerous discards like sharp flint fragments.

“This is ongoing work, but the big picture in this study is that we have one more example that Neanderthals used some kind of logic for organizing their living sites,” [University of Colorado Denver anthropologist Julien] Riel-Salvatore said. “This is still more evidence that they were more sophisticated than many have given them credit for. If we are going to identify modern human behavior on the basis of organized spatial patterns, then you have to extend it to Neanderthals as well.”

Interestingly, Riel-Salvatore’s team published a study in 2011 that found no differentiation in the spatial patterning of artifacts in the Mousterian levels of Riparo Bombrini. This time around they analyzed the data considering mobility strategies of the hominids using the space and the size of the excavated areas and the piles of shells, bones and stones revealed themselves to have clear patterns. It’s important for the study of other Neanderthal sites going forward because it gives researchers an approach that might expose spatial patterning that went unnoticed in earlier explorations.

Riparo Bombrini also has the advantage of having been used by a later hominid group from the Aurignac culture (45,000 to 35,000 years ago), the early modern humans who made some of the earliest known examples of figurative art (like Lion Man and the Chauvet cave paintings). The research team plans to examine the Aurignacian levels for spatial patterning as well, which will allow them to compare Neanderthal and homo sapiens usage of the same space, thereby ruling out differences in site form and structure as a reason for any differences between the two.


Swedish woman finds 2,000-year-old gold ring

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Camilla Lundin was walking through a field in the village of Gudhem in southern Sweden when she came across a pretty gold ring. It loops around itself once, so when she first found it she thought it was a spiral leg band for a chicken. Her husband didn’t think much of it either. It was her brother who identified it as an ancient artifact after she sent him a photograph of the ring.

“When he told me it was an ancient gold ring, it felt like a gift from the underworld,” Lundin told The Local. “It was my magnificent ring. I didn’t want to give it up.”

Because Swedish law requires that any potential archaeological artifact made out of gold, silver, or bronze must be reported to the state, Lundin reported the find to the Swedish National Heritage Board. The finder can keep anything more than a 100 years old, but the state gets first dibs on objects made out of precious metals. If the Board determines that it’s of sufficient historical significance to be of interest to them, the state pays the finder fair market value and keeps the artifact. Lundin didn’t want the money, though. She wanted to keep the ring.

The Board found the object was a 2,000-year-old gold ring from the Roman Iron Age. They wanted to explore the discovery site to see if there were any other pieces from the period in the field.

Lundin discovered the trinket in June 2011, but due to planting seasons the Board was unable to investigate the field until autumn. The research and paperwork took more than two years, but for Lundin it all paid off. After searching the farm for similar artefacts on two separate occasions, the state offered Lundin 11,000 kronor ($1,672) for the ring.

“I guess I knew right away it was special, but I had no idea just how valuable it was,” said Lundin, who confessed she still felt slightly disappointed to lose the ring. “I haven’t decided what to do with the money yet, but it will definitely be something special. Maybe I’ll travel somewhere.”

I love how she grudgingly took the money for it because the state compelled the sale but the treasure was worth so much more to her than its monetary value. In her place, I’d feel exactly the same way.


Earliest Buddhist shrine found in Nepal?

Saturday, November 30th, 2013

Archaeologists digging in the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, Nepal, have unearthed the remains of a timber structure around an open space dating back to the sixth century B.C. which would make it the earliest known Buddhist shrine.

Tradition has it that Lumbini is where Siddhārtha Gautama was born. The Maya Devi Temple is one of four major pilgrimage sites for Buddhists today (the other three are the places of his enlightenment, first discourse, and death as identified by the Buddha in the Parinibbana Sutta) and pilgrims have been visiting the temple as the Buddha’s place of birth since at least the third century B.C. A large stone found in 1996 was installed in the third century B.C. to mark the precise spot.

Buddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents. Coningham and his colleagues postulate that the open space in the center of the most ancient, timber shrine may have accommodated a tree. Brick temples built later above the timber one also were arranged around the central space, which was unroofed.

To determine the dates of the timber shrine and a previously unknown early brick structure above it, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques. Geoarchaeological research has confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots within the temple’s central void.

There is a debate about when the Buddha was born — historians have theorized anywhere between 623 BC and 340 B.C. — and until now, the earliest archaeological evidence of Buddhist temples dates to the reign of Indian Emperor Ashoka (reigned 269 B.C. to 232 B.C.), a convert to Buddhism who built stupas, monasteries and shrines all over his empire. One of them was a brick cross-wall temple at Lumbini, in fact, under whose remains the archaeological team dug to find the earlier shrine.

It was an engraved pillar erected by Ashoka that identified Lumbini after it was lost to the jungle for centuries. In 1896, German archaeologist Dr. Alois Anton Fuhrer (who was later revealed to have been a prolific forger of Buddhist relics) found a 22-foot pillar inscribed “Twenty years after his coronation, Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi [aka Ashoka], visited this place and worshiped because here the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans, was born. He had a stone figure and a pillar set up and because the Lord was born here, the village of Lumbini was exempted from tax and required to pay only one eighth of the produce.”

Another inscription found higher up on the pillar where pilgrims left their marks in the centuries after Ashoka was made by King Ripu Malla in the early 14th century. Somewhere in the 15th century, the temple stopped drawing pilgrims for unknown reasons and the buildings fell into ruin. The rediscovery of the site in the late 19th century re-established it as an important pilgrimage destination and made excavating down to the earliest levels impossible until recently. Archaeologists dug inside the central temple building as monks and pilgrims prayed around them.

Having said all this, there is no specific evidence that proves this 6th century shrine was dedicated to the Buddha. Tree shrines have a history in South Asia long predating Buddhism, perhaps going as far back as the Neolithic, and in the early days of Buddhism there were other active religions in the mix like Jainism, Brahmanism and local cults. It’s still an exciting find with great potential to elucidate a time we know very little about.