Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Bronze Age Egtved Girl was not from Denmark

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


5th c. skeleton may have brought leprosy to Britain

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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


First stone circle in a 100 years found in Dartmoor

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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


Red Lady of El Mirón buried with flowers

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Researchers also collected pollen samples.

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

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

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

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


Roman pool heater found in Bulgarian resort

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Trajan’s conquest of Dacia, so beautifully immortalized on the column that bears his name, was as immense a construction project as it was a military one. Trajan (r. 98-117 A.D.) built several major roads during his campaigns in Dacia, feats of engineering urged by the military necessity to clear a path for the organized and speedy movement of troops and supplies. The Via Trajana almost bisects central Bulgaria. It started in the Danube city of Ulpia Oescus, today the town of Gigen just south of the Romanian border, then went south through Sostra (modern-day Troyan) and the Troyan Pass in the Balkan Mountains before ending in Philippopolis (modern-day Plovdiv) which in Trajan’s day was in the Roman province of Thrace and is now in southern Bulgaria. The road played an important strategic role in the conquest of Dacia since it provided the army with a vital link connecting the Roman province of Lower Moesia on the Danube Plain with the largest city in Thrace. An even longer road Trajan built, the Via Militaris, intersected Philippopolis going the other way, diagonally from the northwest to the southeast of what is now Bulgaria.

Subsequent emperors maintained and added to the roads, building watch forts and . Along the Balkan stretch of the Via Trajana, Antonius Pius (r. 138-161 A.D.) built a fortress at Sostra in the Osam river valley to garrison the area which is known to have revolted against his rule at least once. Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 A.D.) and Gallienus (r. 253-268 A.D.) built fortresses practically on top of their predecessors’ ones at Sostra. The garrison ranged from 500 to 1,000 soldiers strong at different times, all of whom were housed in long wooden barracks with tiled roofs and well-fed on a diet of domesticated animals, game and mussels from the Osam river.

As so often happened in the Roman empire, a bustling town grew alongside the outpost to take advantage of the security afforded by troops permanently stationed there and the many opportunity for trade. In the 5th century, invading Huns destroyed the fortress and the town which were then left undeveloped. With no subsequent construction to destroy what was left of the Roman structures, the site has proven a rich source of archaeological remains since excavations began in the 1970s.

More recently, a team led by archaeologist Ivan Hristov have been excavating Sostra and environs since 2002. They found a stretch of the Via Trajana in 2010 that’s an impressive 7 meters (23 feet) wide and in excellent condition, the best preserved Roman road ever discovered in Bulgaria. Last year Hristov’s team unearthed a Roman road station 5,400 square feet in area with well-appointed facilities including a praetorium — a general or governor’s council/judgment hall — and baths with hot and cold water pools. The baths were fed by brick channels built to carry water from the Osam through the underfloor hypocaust system that heated the water, floor and walls. Coins, jewelry and votive offerings found at the bottom of one of the channels underscores that the people who made use of the facilities were wealthy. This wasn’t a modest public bath for the villagers; it was more like a luxury resort for the well-moneyed traveler.

This year’s excavation has found a furnace used to heat up the water in a shallow pool next to the large swimming pool, much like the small hot tubs attached to the big pools in modern-day resorts. Hristov believes the resort regularly hosted government administrators and may even have been visited by the imperial family when they were in the area.

The Bulgaria National Museum of History plans to apply for National Monument of Culture status for the Sostra road station which will grease the wheels for additional excavation and partial restoration to enhance its potential as a tourist destination.

The new discovery at the Ancient Roman fortress Sostra is expected to help it receive the status of an archaeological preserve including the fortress, the road station, and a large Early Christian basilica together with several other ancient buildings located at the point where the Lomeshka River flows into the Osam River.

As the report puts it, tourists will be able to walk around an entire labyrinth of authentic archaeological structures.


Neolithic eel fishing spear with bone prong found at Lolland

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

The archaeological survey in advance of the construction of the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel on the Danish island of Lolland has discovered another pre-historic treasure in exceptional condition. After the flint dagger with intact bark handle, the 5,000-year-old gillnets and the flint axe with the intact wood handle, now archaeologists have unearthed a Stone Age wooden eel fishing spear with the central bone prong still in place.

Similar spears, known as leisters, are still used to capture eels today, but archaeologists could not confirm whether the design of two lateral prongs that curve outwards with a straight, sharp central prong was used in pre-historic times as well. While individual lateral wooden prongs, bone points and more rarely pairs of prongs have been found before, this is the first time a leister has been found with all three prongs in position. It confirms that Neolithic eel spears had the same configuration as modern ones, which means the craft of eel fishing hasn’t changed much in thousands of years.

“Unfortunately, the string winding and the shaft were missing, but the position of leister prongs and bone point in relation to each other can only be interpreted as the result of a leister that has broken off – the pieces were still sitting at an angle in the old seabed. This means that we can now say with a greater level of certainly that Stone Age fishing leisters had both lateral wooden prongs and a centred bone point, although a tiny amount of uncertainty remains until we find a complete preserved leister,” [Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologist] Søren Anker Sørensen continues.

The leister has not been radiocarbon dated yet. It was discovered in an area that in the Late Stone Age had two lagoons and a 65-foot-wide belt of stone marking the spot where the coast was in around 3,000 B.C. The spear points could range from the middle to the late Neolithic. An individual lateral prong from a leister was found at another dig site in the ancient lagoon which dates to the late Neolithic.

Another exciting find from the excavation is the end of a hafted arrow. The shaft isn’t complete — the piece is about four inches long and broken in two — but the most important part of the weapon is: the pointy end. The flint arrowhead is attached, and the adhesive and binding used to fix the point to the shaft is still preserved. There was some discussion about how Stone Age peoples attached the flint parts of their weapons to the wood in the comments on the axe article (hi Virginia Burton!). This arrow answers the question neatly. You can see in the photograph how tightly wound the string binding is.


Chauvet Cave replica opens in France

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

The walls of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France are decorated with the earliest known pictorial drawings made during the Aurignacian period, between 30,000 and 32,000 years ago. More than 1,000 drawings of animals — including horses, bison, lions, cave bears, panthers, eagle owls, woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses — hand prints and abstract line and dot designs cover 91,000 square feet of space. The art has unique qualities like incised outlines that give figures depth and a sense of dynamic movement conveyed by multiple legs as if we were seeing the animals in motion.

The cave was discovered in December of 1994 by three speleologists: Jean-Marie Chauvet (after whom it was named), Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. They were the first people to see the splendour on the walls since the cave opening was sealed by a rockfall 23,000 years ago. France learned a hard lesson with the Lascaux Cave which was discovered in 1940, opened to the public in 1948 and in dire condition by 1955 thanks to the carbon dioxide, moisture, contaminants and lichens introduced by unwitting visitors. This time they took no chances. The French government declared the Chauvet Cave a protected heritage site almost immediately and only made it available to fewer than 200 researchers a year.

Because of its excellent condition, the density and quality of the art, which includes some species of animals like the panther and owl seen in no other Paleolithic art, and the rich remains of prehistoric fauna and human footprints found on the ground, the cave was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June of 2014. But how to share said heritage with said world without causing irreparable harm to it? Again Lascaux paved the way. Lascaux II, a replica of the main sections of the cave and its art, opened in 1983 and has been very popular to the tourists who can no longer see the original cave.

In 2008, a contest was launched to select the architect who make a replica of the Chauvet Cave. French architects Fabre and Speller won, but their design for the concrete building that would house the replica cave was only one part of a complex whole. This construction and art project would ultimately requiring the close collaboration of 500 people employed by 35 different companies. A 3D laser scanning survey was carried out in 2011 so that every feature of the cave interior could be duplicated. Since the cave is very long, it was rearranged in the replica, basically folded into a circle with all the art consolidated, but meticulously mapped out to its original topography. The original 91,000 square feet were thus reduced to a more manageable but still vast 32,000 square feet, 10 times the size of Lascaux II.

The construction of the walls, ceilings and floors with their accurate topographic features was achieved by bending thousands of metal rods to precisely match the natural lumps and bumps mapped by the 3D scans. The rods were then welded together in sections that could be affixed to steel beams in the ceiling of the new structure. Before they were installed in place, the cage-like sections were covered with two layers of mortar: one of landscape mortar and a top layer of finishing mortar the same colors and textures as the clay and limestone of the original. Even the cracks were reproduced exactly. A thin layer of fine mortar sprayed with a retardant to keep it damp while the artists work was used for the walls with engraved images and finger paints.

Once the sections were prepped, the artists got their turn. Painters used the same kind of charcoal made from Sylvester pine trees and the ocher pigment used by the Aurignacian artists tens of thousands of years ago. Pictures of the originals were projected onto the wall sections, ensuring they were reproduced accurately to the millimeter. Thanks to the mortars used as a base, these materials will sink into the walls over time just the original ones did.

Because they wanted to reproduce not just the art but convey the experience of being in the original cave, geological features like stalactites and calcite concretions were recreated out of epoxy resin or concrete. Crushed or powdered glass was added to the resin to give it that beautiful glittery look you see in natural cave formations. Some of the pieces were treated with glossy topcoat that make them look wet, like the water that formed them is still dripping.

Once all 27 large panels were complete, they were installed in the building along with replicas of the bones and footprints found on the ground in the original cave. It took only 30 months from the time construction began in 2012 until its completion. The cost was $59 million, sure to be recouped many times over by the expected influx of 300,000 to 400,000 visitors a year. On Saturday, April 25th, 2014, the replica opened to the public.

This video is in French, but even if you don’t speak any you should still be able to follow it roughly based on the descriptions above, and you really should watch it because it is mind-blowing how they put this thing together.

Also, if you have Netflix, you have to watch Werner Herzog’s breathtaking documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. He was allowed very rare access to the original cave and the result is an artistic tour de force as much in execution as in subject matter.


Mystery basilica under Porta Maggiore opens to the public

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

In April of 1917, construction of the Rome-Cassino railroad line just outside the gates of the Porta Maggiore on the Via Praenestina in Rome was halted by a cave-in. The cause turned out to be the collapse of an ancient roof of a building nobody knew was under their feet. As it happens, most ancient Romans probably had no idea it was under their feet either. It was deliberately built about seven or eight meters (23-26 feet) below the level of the ancient Via Praenestina in the early decades of the 1st century A.D. and constructed in such a way as to give little indication that something was going on down there.

Basilica under Porta Maggiore, 1st c. A.D.The part that caved in was the barrel vaulted roof of a dromos, a long entrance gallery that sloped down from the surface and then turned at a right angle for a short passageway into a small square atrium topped by a domed vault. Light was provided by a skylight at the beginning of the dromos, another where it corners into the short passageway and a third in the atrium vault. The atrium opens into a rectangular hall 12 meters (40 feet) long and nine meters (30 feet) wide divided into three barrel-vaulted sections. Two rows of three square pillars separate the central nave from the aisles on either side. The nave is wider than the aisles and opens into a semi-circular apse at the bottom. The main hall was lit by chandeliers and lamps.

Visitor looks up at the vaulted ceiling above the apse. Image by Filippo Monteforte/AFP.This is the classic basilica design, used by the Romans as loci for business transactions, court proceedings and imperial audiences. What makes this building unique in the Roman world is that it is a basilica built for a pre-Christian religious purpose. Roman temples had columned porticos, a main room where the deity’s image was housed and one or more back rooms to store equipment, sacrifices and treasure. When Christianity was decriminalized by the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Constantine wanted to build impressive churches, as opposed to the cramped underground chapels, catacombs and private homes used when it was a suppressed religion. He turned to the basilica as a public building of widely-recognized civic importance that was not associated with pagan religious practices, and Christian churches have embraced that ancient design ever since.

Stucco decoration depicting Sappho as she steps off the cliff into the ocean. Image by Filippo Monteforte/AFP.The Porta Maggiore basilica is not a temple and it’s not Christian, but it’s definitely a religious building. The decoration attests to that, as does the fact that it was built underground in the first place. Above a wainscoting-like band of red paint of which there are sections extant, the walls and vaults are covered with exquisite white stucco reliefs of mythological scenes like Sappho’s legendary suicide by throwing herself off the Leucadian cliff into the ocean, Zeus’ eagle abducting Ganymede, Medea offering a magical narcotic beverage to knock out the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece, Orpheus leading Eurydice back from the underworld, Hercules rescuing Hesione from the sea monster, Paris and Helen, Hippolytus and Phaedra, the centaur Chiron teaching Achilles, and one of the Dioscuri kidnapping one of the Leucippides for his bride. There A herm faces off against an urn. Image by Filippo Monteforte/AFP.are also heads of Medusa, children at play, animals, plants, a wedding, winged Victories, Nereids, bacchantes, herms, urns, a pygmy returning to his hut after a successful hunt, a table groaning with food and drink, stylized landscapes with garlanded columns and votive trees, worshippers praying to or decorating altars, ritual devotions, and all kinds of geometric and floral flourishes. The quality of the reliefs is exceptionally high and the consistency of style confirms a first century A.D. date.

The method of construction is one of the most fascinating aspects of this unique structure. Nothing else like it has been found. Builders dug seven or eight meters down into the soft volcanic tufa creating trenches where the perimeter walls would go and squared pits where the pillars would go. They then poured that fabulous Roman concrete into pits and let it set. No need for forms or scaffolding; the tufa itself provided the support necessary. Once the concrete had hardened, they poured the concrete for the arches over the pillars and the barrel vaulted ceilings. Lastly they dug out all the tufa from the interior and voila: underground basilica. So damn ingenious. Even though the walls were painted and stuccoed, you can still see the rough texture imprinted on them by the tufa as they dried.

Nave with mosaic floor in the foreground. Image by Filippo Monteforte/AFP.The mosaic floors have remained essentially intact. Made primarily of white tiles with black borders around the walls and pillars, there are untiled areas whose outlines suggest they were once the bases of statues or large urns. In the center of the nave and aisles are small pits that archaeologists believe were the anchor points for the chains used to raise and lower the chandeliers. The skeletal remains of a dog and a pig were found underneath the floor of the apse, likely a sacrifice made during the consecration of the basilica.

Since its discovery, historians have proposed several possible uses for the building — tomb, nymphaeum, site of a funerary cult of the dead — but the prevailing theory at the moment is that it was a place of worship for members of a Neopythagorean mystery religion. Neopythagoreanism was a revival of an earlier school of thought espoused by the mathematician Pythagoras of Theorem fame that held that union with the divine was possible through ascetic living and contemplation of the cosmic order. Metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, was a central tenet. The presence of multiple scenes dealing in the movement of souls to and from the underworld (Orpheus, Sappho) and transitions from one state of being to another (Ganymede, the Dioscuro and Leucippid) on the basilica decorations are clues to its possible association with this Hellenistic mystery cult. There is so much variety in the stucco reliefs, however, and so much we don’t know about the symbolism behind them, that the basilica’s usage may remain a mystery forever, which is fitting, really.

Pygmy returning from the hunt. Image by Filippo Monteforte/AFP.This marvelous space was filled with rubble and sealed just a few years after it was built. Its location may explain its fate. The basilica is believed to have been built on property belonging to the Statilius family. This is evidenced by a burial ground nearby for the servants and freedmen of the Statilii. This family was new, only a few generations from its first consul Titus Statilius Taurus I who had fought for both Anthony and Octavian during the Triumvirate and ultimately backed the right horse at the right time leading Octavian’s armies at Actium.

The Statilii were very wealthy (gotta have big money to come from nothing and successfully climb the cursus honorum) and one of them,
Titus Statilius Taurus IV, became a target of imperial greed because of his wealth. Titus Statilius Taurus IV was consul in 44 A.D., proconsul of Africa from 51 to 53 A.D. and the great-uncle of the future empress Statilia Messalina, third wife of Nero. After his return from Africa, he was caught in the cross-hairs of Emperor Claudius’ notorious wife Agrippina.

Tacitus describes the events in his Annals, Book XII, Chapter 59:

Statilius Taurus, whose wealth was famous, and whose gardens aroused [Agrippina's] cupidity, she ruined with an accusation brought by Tarquitius Priscus. He had been the legate of Taurus when he was governing Africa with proconsular powers, and now on their return charged him with a few acts of malversation, but more seriously with addiction to magical superstitions. Without tolerating longer a lying accuser and an unworthy humiliation, Taurus took his own life before the verdict of the senate.

Black mosaic outlines on the floor indicate where statue and urn bases once wereRubble found in the basilica dates to the middle of the first century, and archaeologists believe it was sealed during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. So we have a brilliantly built, expensively decorated, secret underground basilica constructed on Statilius land just outside the ancient walls of the city. Sounds like something a very rich person with “an addiction to magical superstitions” might build, no? The missing statuary and urns and missing altar could have been confiscated and/or destroyed by imperial order, or they could have been removed by his people before the basilica was sealed to prevent them from getting into any more trouble.

That theory was proposed by French historian Jérôme Carcopino who was Director of the French School in Rome in 1937. More recently, historian and professor of Roman art and archaeology Gilles Sauron proposed that the basilica was constructed by an earlier Statilius, Titus Statilius Taurus III, second son of the original new man Titus Statilius Taurus, who was consul in 11 A.D. Recent conservation work has found different sizes of mosaic tiles and possible indications that some of the stucco reliefs may have been done at different times, so both historians may be right after all.

Votive figureOnce it was rediscovered by the railway workers, the basilica was restored several times. To provide access to the structure which is now 13 meters (about 43 feet) below street level, a staircase was built from the Via Praenestina connecting to the short passageway right before it opens into the atrium. It has very rarely been open to the public, however, because of its delicate condition. Stucco is extremely susceptible to moisture and as early as 1924, just seven years after it was found, water damage became such a concern that conservators covered the top with a cap of pipe-clay to form an impermeable membrane. It proved not to be impermeable, unfortunately, so 25 years later they tried again. In 1951 the railway paid for construction of a dome of reinforced concrete to protect the delicate basilica beneath from the vibrations of the trains and water damage. It was a stop-gap measure and the basilica continued to deteriorate.

Because of its precarious condition, this beautiful basilica, unique in the world, is barely known. That may change now that a new restoration more than 10 years in the making has addressed long-term issues with water penetration, cleaned out the plague of parasitic microorganisms that feast on stucco, and installed eight machines that filter the air to operating-room cleanliness and monitor the temperature and humidity. Work on the dromos, atrium and apse is complete, but it is ongoing on the vaulted ceilings. They’re still raising funds to restore the naves.

The basilica will be open to guided tours only, reservations obligatory (call 0639967700 to book a visit). Because an excess of human bodies with their breathing and sweating and greasiness and germs can drastically alter the precarious environmental balance of the structure, tours are offered on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.

This Italian news story shows the basilica before restoration:

This is a fly-through with some CG effects of the basilica as it is now:



Liquid mercury found under Teotihuacan temple

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

The excavations under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan have unearthed another exceptional find: large quantities of liquid mercury. Archaeologist Sergio Gómez and his team have been excavating the tunnel underneath the pre-Aztec pyramid, discovered by accident in 2003 when a sinkhole opened up in front of the temple, since 2009, using a robot to reveal three chambers at the end of the tunnel and last year discovering an enormous cache of 50,000 artifacts (sculptures, jade, rubber balls, obsidian blades, pyrite mirrors) and organic remains (animal bones, fur, plants, seeds, skin). It has taken so long to excavate it because the tunnel was filled to the brim with soil and rocks and sealed 1,800 years ago by the people of Teotihuacan about whom we know very little.

The mercury was found in one of the chambers discovered by the robot at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s something that completely surprised us,” Gomez said at the entrance to the tunnel below Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent, about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Mexico City.

Some archeologists believe the toxic element could herald what would be the first ruler’s tomb ever found in Teotihuacan, a contemporary of several ancient Maya cities, but so shrouded in mystery that its inhabitants still have no name.

Unsure why the mercury was put there, Gomez says the metal may have been used to symbolize an underworld river or lake.

(mercuric sulfide) is the most commonly found source of mercury ore and ancient Mesoamericans were intimately familiar with it both as a red pigment and for its mercury content. They knew how to extract mercury from crushed cinnabar — heating the ore separates the mercury from sulfur and the evaporated mercury can then be collected in a condensing column — and employed it as a gilding medium and possibly for ritual purposes. It was very difficult and dangerous to produce. Before now, traces of mercury have only been found at a two Maya sites and one Olmec site in Central America. This is the first time it has been discovered in Teotihuacan, and I suspect this is the first time it has been discovered in large amounts anywhere in ancient Mexico. (The exact quantities discovered under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and at the other sites haven’t been reported.)

Reflective materials held a great deal of religious significance in Mesoamerican cultures. Mirrors were seen as conduits to the supernatural. A river of mercury would make one hugely expensive and ritually important conveyance to the underworld. Added to the exceptional finds already made in the tunnel, the presence of so much mercury indicates that if anybody was buried in these chambers, it would have to be someone of enormous importance in Teotihuacan society. It could be a king, but we don’t know what kind of governing system they had in Teotihuacan, so it could be a lord, several oligarchs or religious leaders. The hope is that this excavation and its unprecedented finds will answer many of the long-outstanding questions about the city of Teotihuacan.

I’m excited about this discovery because I’ve been fascinated by the notion of underground rivers of mercury since I first read about the ones reportedly created for the tomb of the first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huang. Better known today for the terracotta army found in pits around the emperor’s burial mound, the mausoleum itself was apparently a thing of shimmering splendour. Grand Historian to the Han emperor Sima Qian, writing a century after the Qin emperor’s death, described Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum in Volume Six of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), China’s first official dynastic history.

They dug down deep to underground springs, pouring copper to place the outer casing of the coffin. Palaces and viewing towers housing a hundred officials were built and filled with treasures and rare artifacts. Workmen were instructed to make automatic crossbows primed to shoot at intruders. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above, the heaven is depicted, below, the geographical features of the land.

As the emperor’s burial mound has not been excavated (just the environs), we don’t know if the rivers of flowing mercury really existed, but high levels of mercury have been found in soil samples taken from the tumulus so significant amounts of the heavy metal were certainly used for some purpose. I think it would be the coolest thing if the people of Teotihuacan created their own shimmering splendor of an underworld too.


Roman owl fibula found on Danish island

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Last summer, archaeologists excavating an Iron Age settlement on the Baltic island of Bornholm, Denmark, unearthed a rare enameled brooch in the shape of an owl. The excavation of the Lavegaard settlement on the outskirts of the town of Nexø was carried out in advance of construction of a daycare center. The archaeological team from Bornholms Museum has found large quantities of pottery, the remains of workshop ovens, hearths, clay and daub construction, traces of iron smelting and ceramics firing and more than 1,300 postholes. The owl pin was found by metal detectorists working with the archaeologists a few meters from an ancient home in the Roman Iron Age layer. Its design and composition date it to the middle of the 1st century through the end of the 3rd century A.D.

The owl’s most prominent features are its huge round eyes with bright orange irises around a black pupil. Its body has a wing decoration filled with green enamel inset with five circles, each containing concentric rings of red, yellow and black. The bird’s tail feathers are marked with semi-circular indentations and its neck is encircled by a rope design. All the colors are made of enamel.

The artifact is a plate or disk fibula, a pin used to fasten garments made from a flat disk that could be shaped into a variety of designs, including zoomorphic ones. It was made of bronze and decorated with multi-colored enamel accents. The enamel in the piece was created by applying various colors of powdered glass onto the glass rods you see in millefiori designs (that’s how those concentric circles in the eyes and on the body were made) and then firing the brooch until the powder fused into enamel. The technique used to make the owl so colorful is known as pit enamel because the surface of the enamel becomes uneven upon subsequent firings done to harden the enamel.

Roman enamel came in a variety of colors — orange, red, azure, dark blue, green, yellow, white, black — but it rarely survives in brilliant condition. Many enameled fibulae found today have seen their colors fade or change into a yellowish brown. The owl’s colors are still diverse and bright because it was preserved by archaeological layers topped by a thick clay sealing layer. Also, the area was not ploughed anytime in the recent past which saved the little owl from being churned up and potentially damaged by heavy equipment.

While enameled fibulae do not appear to have been very popular north of the Germanic border — Scandinavia had excellent artisans of its own, particularly metalworkers, and the fashion was to leave metal jewelry as is rather than putting lots of color on it — more of them have been found on the island of Bornholm than anywhere else in Scandinavia, about a dozen of them so far. This is the only owl fibula known to have been found in Scandinavia. They’re rare anyway, and the few that have been found were unearthed in German frontier forts or closer to the heart of the empire in what are today Belgium, France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland.

Somebody must have loved this colorful owl, perhaps appreciating its rare design or symbolic significance, enough to take it home. Archaeologists believe it was likely to have been brought to Bornholm by a mercenary returning from a stint in the Roman army rather than openly traded.

Owls have a keen sense of night vision, enabling these highly skilled silent hunters to catch their prey unawares. This notion of owls as intelligent and wise animals is one that has endured throughout the ages as famous companions to both Athena, the Greek Goddess of war, and later to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, art, trade, and war.

In fact, Minerva was often depicted with an owl on her shoulder as a symbol of wisdom, making it a highly desirable animal for a Roman soldier.

We do not know if the Germanic perception of the owl was the same as the Romans, but many of them would have been mercenaries in the Roman territories and developed a deep insight into the Roman mentality and culture. It is likely that they also adopted Roman traditions of symbolic jewellery.

The brooch must have been something quite special at the time, both because of its unusual shape and bright colours. It must have given the wearer a great level of prestige.

In Danish the word for owl fibula is uglefiblen which is, I think we can all agree, extremely adorable. The uglefiblen is now on display at the National Museum of Denmark along with other treasures discovered in 2014.





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