Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Burial ground unearthed at Laos’ Plain of Jars

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

Archaeologists have unearthed a burial ground at one of Laos’ most fascinating and mysterious ancient sites, the Plain of Jars. The remains are estimated to be about 2,500 years old. An international team of archaeologists from The Australian National University (ANU), Monash University and the archaeology division of the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism discovered seven burials and four probable burials with ceramic grave goods.

The Plain of Jars is a group of more than 90 megalithic sites in the central Lao province of Xieng Khouang which are peppered with monumental stone jars carved from a quarry five to six miles away and then dragged to the various jar groupings. This was an impressive feat as some of the jars are massive; the largest weigh 10 metric tons. Most of them are made of sandstone, but four other rock types — granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia — were also used. They range from three to 10 feet high, two to six-and-a-half feet in diameter and are basically cylindrical in shape although they funnel upwards a little with a wider bottom than top. Rims around the top suggest they used to have lids, but no lids have ever been discovered in situ. Other stone pieces have been found, however: discs placed on the ground over burial pits and unworked stone grave markers.

Each jar grouping contains between one and 392 jars, the latter of which is near a Hmong village that can only be accessed by foot. The group where the burial ground was recently discovered is called Site 1 and has more than 300 jars, stone discs and grave markers. Very little is known about the makers of the Plain of Jars megaliths. With no writing and few engravings on the stones, archaeologists haven’t had much to go on.

In the first excavations in the 1930s, archaeologists found evidence of cremation, including burned teeth and bone fragments, inside the jars. They also found unburned human skeletal remains buried around the jars along with pottery, iron and bronze objects, beads and other artifacts. After that, there was a gap of six decades before the next archaeological explorations of the site. For almost a decade (1964-1973), the Plain of Jars was pelted with an unspeakable number of bombs by the US in the Secret War against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communists. US planes dropped 262 million cluster bombs on Laos, almost all of them on the Plain of Jars, and 80 million of them never exploded. Many of the ancient stones suffered irreparable damage, and the unexploded ordnance made one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world so dangerous that archaeologists didn’t return until 1994, and even though they stuck to surveys and a handful of excavations then they were taking enormous risks.

UNESCO and the Mines Advisory Group NGO cleared seven of the jar sites between 2004 and 2007, one of which was Site 1. This opened the door for a major archaeological excavation that might answer some of the many questions about who made these jars and why.

One popular theory was that the jars were used as vessels for decomposing bodies. Once the soft tissues had decayed, the bones were then buried around the jars. This year’s discovery of primary burial where the individual was interred in the burial ground and never moved is therefore of great importance.

[The Australian National University archaeologist and dig leader] Dr O’Reilly said the dig had revealed three distinct types of burial.

“There are pits full of bones with a large limestone block placed over them and other burials where bones have been placed in ceramic vessels,” he said. “Our excavations have also revealed, for the first time at one of these sites, a primary burial, where a body was placed in a grave.”

He also said that determining the status of the buried individuals was difficult due to a lack of material objects buried with them, but hoped some genetic analysis might shed some light on whom these people were related to.

DNA and stable isotope analysis could provide key information on the ethnicity and geographic origin of the people who used the stone jars. The project will continue for five years, stretching further afield to the Assam region of northeastern India where there are megalithic jar sites that are similar enough to the Laotian Plain of Jars to explore whether there may be a link between them.

Ancient textiles found in Nepal suggest Silk Road ran further south

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

Analysis of rare ancient textiles discovered in a tomb in Nepal suggest the Silk Road network may have extended further south than previously believed. The textile fragments were found in the Samdzong 5, one in a complex of 10 shaft tombs dug into a cliff face in Upper Mustang, Nepal, between 400 and 650 A.D. (Samdzong 5 dates to around 500 A.D.). The complex is 4,000 meters above sea level and 30 meters above ground surface and can only be accessed climbing the cliff face. People didn’t even know they were there until an earthquake in 2009 sheered off the facade of the cliff and exposed the tombs. The earthquake also caused the ceilings of the tombs to collapse, damaging the contents and accelerating the decay of organic that had otherwise been well-preserved thanks to the high altitude and stable dry conditions inside the caves.

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of 105 people in the tomb complex, but Samdzong 5 only contained two sets of disarticulated remains, one of an adult, one of a child aged 8-12. The skeletal remains of the adult were found in a wooden coffin with an impressive array of associated grave goods: two large copper vessels, a ladle, iron daggers, cups and trays made of wood and bamboo, copper and bronze bangles and thousands of glass beads. The star artifact was a mask made of gold and silver that archaeologists believe was a death mask placed over the face of the adult. Pinholes border the edges of the mask, which indicates the mask was once sewn to fabric. Textile fragments were discovered in close proximity to the coffin and goods.

Small samples from four textiles were examined with a scanning electron microscope to identify the fibers and their source(s). Two of the samples are degummed silk in a fine tabby weave. The yarn is untwisted and glossy, typical of Chinese silk. These textiles almost certainly were traded over long distances to get to Nepal, because there was no local silk production. The other two samples were found to be animal fibers in a warp-faced tabby and a twill weave. Cloth beads and copper tubular beads were sewn into the textiles in parallel rows.

The metals and beads were also found to have originated outside of Nepal. Some of the metals came from either Tibet or India; the beads came from a number of sources including South Asia, Central Asia and Sassania. The pigments were analyzed using micro-Raman spectrometry (MRS), the organic dyes using high pressure liquid chromatography with diode array detection (HPLC-DAD). MRS identified cinnabar pigment; HPLC-DAD found Indian lac, munjeet, turmeric (curcuma) and dyer’s knotweed or indigo dyes. All of these materials can be sourced in India or environs.

Identification of degummed silk fibres and munjeet and Indian lac dyes in the textile finds suggests that imported materials from China and India were used in combination with those locally produced. Says Gleba: “There is no evidence for local silk production suggesting that Samdzong was inserted into the long-distance trade network of the Silk Road.”

“The data reinforce the notion that instead of being isolated and remote, Upper Mustang was once a small, but important node of a much larger network of people and places. These textiles can further our understanding of the local textile materials and techniques, as well as the mechanisms through which various communities developed and adapted new textile technologies to fit local cultural and economical needs.”

The use imported, expensive materials as well as local ones is all unique to Samdzong 5, as are the mask and coffin. The other tombs have very little cultural material of any kind, just the human remains. This indicates the person in Samdzong 5 was an elite individual.

Roman mosaic bonanza at the Getty

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has an exceptional collection of Roman floor mosaics from the Imperial era. Some of them have been on display consistently, but others will be seen by the public for the first time in Roman Mosaics Across the Empire, a new exhibition that opened on Wednesday at the Getty Villa. It features mosaics from provinces of the Roman Empire all over the Mediterranean — Italy, France, North Africa, Syria — done in different styles with different themes.

There’s bear hunt from Baiae, outside of Naples, a head of Medusa surrounded by a glorious optical illusion-inducing geometrical design from Rome, an Orpheus surrounded by animals from Saint-Romain-en-Gal, France, a hare and two birds with geometric border panels from Antioch, Syria, a dramatic lion attacking an onager from Hadrumentum, modern-day Sousse, Tunisia. These are top quality artworks which adorned the homes of the very wealthy, public baths, even early Christian churches.

The show also features a close look at the Getty Conservation Institute’s work conserving the mosaics from the Imperial Roman heyday of Bulla Regia in Tunisia, North Africa. Known for its unique villas with subterranean floors — smart design in the heat of Tunisia — Bulla Regia had the greatest numbers of senators in Roman North Africa. It was an important city and its exquisite art and architecture testify to that importance. The GCI is working with the Institut National du Patrimoine of Tunisia and the World Monuments Fund to fully conserve one of the most important private residences in the city, the House of the Hunt, and to devise a plan for the long-term conservation and maintenance of the 400 mosaics that have already been unearthed at Bulla Regia over the past hundred years. Some of the works will be restored for display; others will be reburied. The idea is to make Bulla Regia a template for in situ conservation that can be applied to mosaics elsewhere in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Highlights of the site’s breathtaking beauty can be seen in this video about the project:

The focus on best practices of situ conservation is in marked contrast to the Getty’s past see-no-evil acquisition policy evinced in more than one of the mosaics on display in this exhibition. The Getty bought 23 panels of the Bear Hunt in 1972 from a Switzerland-based antiques dealer (surprise!) who told them only that it had been in an Italian collection. It was almost certainly illegally exported, but the museum looked the other way as it so often did. Recently Getty researchers attempted to trace the ownership history and there’s a big gap between 1929 and 1972. The last known owner in 1929 was refused an export license because there were doubts as to whether he actually had legal title to the mosaic. Somewhere in those four decades, probably closer to 1972 than 1929, the mosaic was trafficked to Zurich and thence to the Getty. Four other panels from the original mosaic were eventually found by the Italian police and are now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.

The Getty is offering a number of lectures related to the exhibition. The Handling Session looks particularly compelling.

How were mosaics created from pieces of stone and glass? Learn how these intricate architectural decorations were made in this multisensory handling session. Touch tools and materials similar to those used by ancient mosaicists, including tesserae, slaked lime, marble dust, and nippers.

Lucky Angelenos can take an early lunch and handle tesserae every Thursday and Friday from 11:00 AM-12:00 PM through September 9th. The exhibition runs until September 12th, 2016. For those of us who won’t be able to see the mosaics live, the Getty has made a companion catalogue to the exhibition available free online: Roman Mosaics in the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Inscribed Etruscan stele found in Tuscany

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

Archaeologists and students with the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project excavating the ancient Etruscan settlement of Poggio Colla about twenty miles northeast of Florence have discovered an ancient stele with a long inscription in Etruscan. Just days before the end of the dig, the team found an oddly shaped sandstone slab embedded in the foundations of a temple wall. When they first unearthed a section of the stone, they weren’t sure what it was. An unfinished column base or a recycled podium stand were suggested as possibilities, but when more of the slab was revealed, they saw the faint traces of an inscription and realized it was stele. It took the team several days of cautious excavation to find the inscription was an unusually long one, with multiple characters engraved along the edges of the stele.

The slab weighs about 500 pounds and is almost four feet high and more than two feet wide. It dates to around the 6th century B.C. Archaeologists believe the stele was part of a sacred display in the first temple built on the site, an oval structure made of wood that bucchero pottery fragments date to after the early 7th century B.C. It was demolished around 2,500 years ago and new, larger temple was built with a stone podium and stone Tuscan Doric column bases. The old stele was reused as a foundation stone in the new temple.

The news of the find quickly spread through the archaeological community of Tuscany. Two days after the stone was excavated, visiting Etruscan scholars watched as professional art and artifact movers recommended by the Tuscan Archaeological Superintendency lifted the stele from the site, strapped it to a sled and slowly lowered it down the wooded hillside to a waiting pickup truck. It was then transported to the laboratories of the Superintendency in Florence for conservation.

Conservators are photographing and laser scanning the stele to reveal the full details of the inscription. The sandstone has been worn and chipped away and one side has been reddened, probably by fire. It will have to be cleaned before experts have a chance of deciphering the inscription, but they have counted more than 75 characters (letters and punctuation marks), an unusually long text for an Etruscan stele.

Etruscan is often described as a “lost” language, and while it’s true that there are no known living languages related to it, it’s not an untranslatable mystery. In fact, scholars know a fair amount about it from the approximately 13,000 inscriptions in the language that have been discovered. The known vocabulary is limited because most of those inscriptions are very short funerary texts found in tombs or “property of” lines on bronze mirrors.

(I have to briefly digress to mention my favorite Etruscan inscription: the Liver of Piacenza, a bronze sculpture of a life-sized sheep’s liver that is divided into sections labeled with the name of the deity believed to inhabit that piece of the liver. It’s a sort of guide for the haruspex, a diviner who read omens and made predictions from the entrails of sacrificed animals.)

The stele is not a funerary text. It’s a religious dedication from an early phase of the site. Its location adds to its rarity since most Etruscan inscriptions have been in what was once southern Etruria. Poggio Colla is in the northern Etruscan territory.

“We know how Etruscan grammar works, what’s a verb, what’s an object, some of the words,” Warden said. “But we hope this will reveal the name of the god or goddess that is worshiped at this site.” The text will be studied and published by a noted expert on the Etruscan language, Rex Wallace, Professor of Classics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.[...]

It would be a rare discovery to identify the Etruscan god or goddess to which the sanctuary was dedicated.

“Apart from the famous seaside shrine at Pyrgi, with its inscribed gold plaques, very few Etruscan sanctuaries can be so conclusively identified,” [University of Pennsylvania Museum Etruscan scholar Jean MacIntosh] Turfa said. “A study of the names of the dedicants will yield rich data on a powerful society where the nobility, commoners and even freed slaves could offer public vows and gifts.”

Another Battle of Thermopylae found in palimpsest

Monday, March 28th, 2016

The leaves of books in the Middle Ages were made of parchment and vellum, created from animal skins in an expensive and time-consuming craft. It was so costly that scribes often recycled pages from earlier books, removing the ink to create a blank sheet. In the early Middle Ages, the ink was washed off and over time the shadow of former writing reappeared like a pentimento in a painting. In the later Middle Ages, they used pumice powder to scrape the ink away for good.

Volumes with the ghostly memories of previous texts still impressed in the pages are called palimpsests and researchers have been trying to read the vanished writing for centuries, either by careful sight-reading of whatever could be discerned or, starting in the 18th century, by the use of chemicals like tincture of gall which is high in tannic acid and badly damages the manuscript. Nowadays we have new options courtesy of spectral imaging technology.

Researchers Gunther Martin of the University of Bern and Jana Grusková of Comenius University in Bratislava enlisted the aid of Los Angeles-based organization the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) to examine a palimpsest in the Austrian National Library in Vienna using brand new multi-spectral technology. The text in question is the Codex Vindobonensis historicus gr. 73. The bound collection of 10th century ecclesiastical ordinances was acquired in the 16th century by Ogier de Busbecq, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I’s envoy to Constantinople, an avid manuscript collector who would bequeath his collection to the imperial library in Vienna. The parchment pages of the codex came from two different 11th century manuscripts, with 11 pages of monastic rules and prayers added in the 13th century.

The presence of hidden text in the Codex Vindobonensis was discovered decades ago, but even under UV light the text was too faint to be read accurately. A few years ago the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) funded Martin and Grusková’s research into palimpsests, allowing them to look behind the visible script of the codex with EMEL’s multi-spectral technology. The pages were irradiated with lights of different wavelengths. Each type of light is absorbed into the parchment and ink to different degrees. Photographs capture the degrees of absorption and then computer software stitches the pictures together to create a detailed image of the hidden text.

With this system, Martin and Grusková were able to read pieces of the ancient Greek text underwriting the medieval and discovered a precious treasure: significant sections of a history of Rome’s 3rd century Gothic wars written by 3rd century Athenian historian P. Herennius Dexippus. His history, the Scythica (Dexippus called the Goths Scythians), was only known from very fragmentary quotes in much later books. These hefty passages shed a whole new light on the wars of the mid-3rd century.

Martin and Grusková published several of the passages into German in 2014. Now Oxford University’s Christopher Mallan and the University of Queensland’s Caillan Davenport have translated one of the fragments into English. It’s a splendid description of a battle at Thermopylae, probably the most famous battle site of the ancient world where in 480 B.C. King Leonidas’ 300 Spartan warriors and other Greek forces took their brave last stand against the far larger army of Persian King Xerxes.

I find it a tremendous bummer when news stories about this kind of discovery do not include the full text, even when it’s a bit dry or appeals only to the nerdiest history nerds, and in this case the lack of the complete quote in the press accounts is unforgivable because it’s pure awesome. All killer, no filler.

[The Goths invaded Thra]ce and Macedonia, and plundered the entire countryside therein. And then, making an assault upon the city of the Thessalonians, they tried to capture it as a close-packed band. But since those on the walls defended themselves valiantly, warding off the battle columns with the assistance of many hands, and as none of the Scythians’ hopes came to pass, they abandoned the siege. The prevailing opinion of the host was to make for Athens and Achaia, envisioning the gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries: for they learned that the region was exceedingly wealthy in this respect. When the approach of the Scythians was reported to the Greeks, they gathered at Thermopylae, and set about blocking them from the narrow passes there. Some carried small spears, other axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with. And when they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste. And it seemed that the area was otherwise very secure, since the road which led to Greece beyond the Gates was narrow and impracticable on account of the harsh terrain. For the Euboean Sea, at its greatest extent, stretches up to the flat lands near the mountains and makes them most difficult to access on account of the mud, and adjacent to these extends Mt Oeta [, which...] on account of the closeness of the rocks, makes the place almost impassable for both infantry and cavalry. The generals elected for the entire war were proclaimed by the Greeks: first Marianus, who had been chosen previously by the emperor to govern Greece inside the Gates; in addition to him, Philostratus the Athenian, a man mighty in speech and thought; and also Dexippus, who was holding the chief office among the Boeotians for the fifth time. It seemed that the most prudent course was to encourage the men with a speech, and to recall the memory of their ancestors’ valour, so that they would undertake the entire war with greater heart and not give up either during an extended period of watch, or during an attempt on the wall, if such an attempt were to take place at some point in time. When the men had gathered together, Marianus, who had been given the responsibility of addressing them on account of his status, spoke as follows: ‘O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds. For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state, for they fought bravely in the Persian wars and in the conflict called the Lamian war, and when they put to flight Antiochos, the despot from Asia, at which time they were already working in partnership with the Romans who were then in command. So perhaps it may be good fortune, in accordance with the daimonion, that it has been allotted to the Greeks to do battle against the barbarians in this region (indeed your own principles of fighting the wars have turned out to be valid in the past). But you may take confidence in both your preparation for these events and the strength of the region — as a result of which, in previous attacks you seemed terrifying to the enemies. On account of these things future events do not appear to me not without hope, as to better…

It’s the content and style of the writing that identifies it as the work of Dexippus. The Scythica was known to include several siege narratives and long speeches (likely fictionalized) by military leaders. The details about the engagement at Thermopylae — the geography of the site, the weapons of the militia, the names and origins of the generals — indicate this passage was part of a far larger narrative history of the period. No other history written in Greek during the 3rd century goes into such detail about events in the reign of the emperor Gallienus. Only Scythica fits the bill.

There are other characteristics that mark it as Dexippus’ history. The author uses no Roman terms, titles or Latinisms. The focus is on regional figures — Dexippus the Boeotian and Philostratus the Athenian — working in tandem with Roman authorities — Marianus — and on the valor and achievements of Greeks. Even the Roman general makes a point of admiring the history of Greeks’ fight for freedom.

On these points Mallan and Davenport agree with Martin and Grusková, but there are significant areas of disagreement as well. For example, Martin and Grusková believe this battle happened during the Herulian invasions (267/8 A.D.), when the barbarian invaders defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae, but Mallan and Davenport make a strong case, in my opinion, for the battle taking place during an earlier Gothic invasion in around 262 A.D. The Herulian invasions were predominantly seaborne, but there’s no mention of naval engagements in any of the newly discovered fragments, nor do any other sources on the Herulian invasions mention a battle at Thermopylae, which, given its iconic status, is an unlikely oversight. Also Thessaloniki was successfully besieged by the Heruli. This passage describes the Thessalonian defenders as victorious.

Another area of disagreement is the identity of the Roman general Marianus. Martin and Grusková identify him as dux Aurelius Marcianus, one of Gallienus’ generals who fought against the Goths in the late 260s and conspired to kill the emperor in 268. Mallan and Davenport posit that he is a previously unknown general named Marianus, a senator and proconsul of the Roman province of Achaia. (In keeping with his rejection of Latinisms, Dexippus’ reference to Achaia is a geographical region of Greece, not the Roman province. The Greeks called the Roman province “Greece inside the Gates.”) Since proconsuls had limited garrisons at their immediate disposal, he would have had to turn to local militias to help defend the pass.

The reference to the generals being “elected” suggests the defensive forces were assembled by a Greek political body, probably the Panhellenion which was the only body in the 3rd century that covered the regions of Greece represented by the three generals: Boeotia (Dexippus), Athens (Philostratus) and Marianus (Achaia). No other sources mention the Panhellenion appointing military leaders, but the invasion was an extraordinary circumstance which required a speedy military response.

Mallan and Davenport therefore propose a new reconstruction of the Gothic invasion of the early 260s. In late 261 or early 262, the Goths invaded Greece and laid waste to the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia. They besieged Thessaloniki, but it was ably defended by the residents so they moved on to the Roman province of Achaia. The Greeks, likely through the Panhellenion, quickly organized a defense of the province under three generals with Marianus, Roman proconsul of Achaia, at the lead. The Goths invaded Achaia by late 262, early 263, but were turned back by Marianus and Greek militia at the pass of Thermopylae. They didn’t leave empty-handed. On their way out they sacked the rich temples and sanctuaries of Greece before moving on to the Roman Asia province at the end of 263. The threat to Greece was over (for a few years).

Gods and mortals from ancient Dion in New York

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Nestled in the northern foothills of Mount Olympus, the ancient town of Dion was perfectly situated for sacrifices to the gods. It was a lot easier to carry animals to the base of the mountain than to climb its nearly 10,000-foot heights. The first known altar to Zeus Olympios was built in Dion in the 10th century B.C.

The small town grew into a prominent city under the Macedonians who revered it as the center of their religion. In the late 5th century B.C., Macedonian King Archelaus I founded the Olympian Games there, a yearly festival of the arts and athletic contents in honor of Olympian Zeus and his daughters the Muses. Top athletes and artists flocked to the festival from all over Greece. The kings of Macedon made sacrifices at the altar to ring in every new year (the end of September in the Macedonian calendar), celebrated their military victories and invoked the protection and support of Olympian Zeus before setting out on new adventures. Philip II of Macedon celebrated his successful siege and destruction of Olynthos in 348 B.C. at Dion. His son Alexander the Great sacrificed to the gods there before taking his conquering armies East. He also imported the worship of Isis from Egypt to Dion.

The strong association with Alexander the Great served Dion well under the Roman emperors. Octavian founded a colony there in 31 B.C., and later emperors in the 2nd and 3rd centuries lent it their support. In the waning days of the empire, Dion was still prominent as the seat of a bishopric. Bishops of Dion took part in important church synods (Serdike in 343 A.D. and Ephesos in 431 A.D.), but at the end of the 5th century the city fell to the armies of Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great and it never recovered. It gradually lost importance and population due to a series of earthquakes and floods from the river Vaphyras. By the 10th century it was an abandoned ruin.

The ruins of Dion were identified as the ancient sacred city of the Macedonians in 1806, but organized excavations didn’t begin until 1928. There was a 30-year lapse in archaeological exploration between 1931 and 1960. Since 1973, Dr. Dimitrios Pandermalis has led excavations at the site, returning every summer with a team of archaeologists, students and volunteers from the modern village to brave the oppressive heat and humidity. They have expanded the excavation area considerably to include the ancient sanctuaries, graveyards, tumulus burials and the town center. Spared development, reconstruction and the potentially destructive fumbling of early archaeologists, Dion has proved an archaeological treasure trove. Thanks to its wetlands environment at the base of the mountain between two rivers, Dion’s remains have been well preserved by water and mud layers.

All that mud and water is no picnic for the archaeological team to have to dig through, but it’s been worth it. Excavators have unearthed the remains of sanctuaries dedicated to Olympian Zeus, Zeus Hypsistos, Demeter, Isis and Asclepius. There’s a Hellenistic theater, a Great Baths complex, a partially preserved 2nd century A.D. Roman theater, a Greek and Roman wall, a 5th century Christian basilica and several Roman-era villas, most notably the Villa of Dionysus discovered in 1987.

The Villa of Dionysus was built in the second half of the 2nd century as a complex with an elegant home, a shrine to Dionysus, a bathhouse, a library and storefronts. Archaeologists discovered a great many ancient artworks: sculptures, decorative elements from expensive furniture, and mosaics of exceptional quality. Among the most prized sculptures is a group of four seated men representing Epicurean philosophers, three students and one teacher identifiable by his bearded adulthood and the open scroll he holds. The heads of the students were recarved in the 3rd century AD to give them portrait features, possibly to make them look like members of the family who lived in the house at the time. Other artworks found in the house include a hauntingly beautiful portrait of Agrippina the Elder, mother of Nero, and a glorious 100 square meter floor mosaic in the banquet hall depicting the Epiphany of Dionysus.

The mosaic is one of the finest of its kind and is believed to be a copy of a lost Hellenistic painting. The villa being in ruins, there has been great concern about preserving the mosaic. The authorities built a custom addition to the museum to house the mosaic in ideal conservation conditions, but money was hard to come by. That changed last year when the Onassis Foundation funded the removal of the mosaic from the villa to the new building. Here’s a behind the scenes view of the detachment, transportation and conservation of the Epiphany of Dionysus mosaic:

Now Dion is paying the Onassis Foundation back in the most wonderful way: by loaning the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City more than 90 artifacts — mosaics, sculptures, jewelry, medical implements, terracotta vessels, glassware — dating from the 10th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. Many of these pieces are in the US for the first time, and they are absolutely stunning. There’s the central panel of the Dionysus mosaic and several of the masques around it, the sculptures of the four philosophers, that beautiful portrait of Agrippina, an Iron Age spiral brooch with textile fragments still attached to it, statues and stele of the gods. There are utilitarian artifacts as well, including a copper oil lamp decorated with the head of a panther and a 1st century B.C. copper speculum, which looks remarkably similar to the modern version.

The Gods and Mortals at Olympus exhibition opened March 24th and runs through June 18th. They’ve really gone all out to put together a spectacular and content-rich show with cross-generational appeal. You can amble through the artifacts of Dion conversing with philosopher Simon Critchley, or lure your museum-resistant friends to the Museum Hacks series “for people who don’t like museums.” There’s even a videogame where children (and grown-ups!) can become the archaeologist excavating Dion. Entrance to the exhibition is free.


Chinese oracle bones: from rubbings to 3D scans

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Oracle bones are inscribed ox shoulder blades or the flat underside of turtle shells that were used for divination in Shang dynasty China (ca. 1600-1046 B.C.). The Shang was China’s second dynasty and the oracle bones are the oldest surviving texts in the Chinese language. They are the main source historians have about Shang China and Bronze Age China in general, but were only recognized as the immense cultural patrimony they are in 1899. Antiquarian Wang Yirong found some oracle bones being sold in Peking as “dragon bones” which were ground into powder and used in traditional medicine to staunch a bleeding wound. He recognized they were engraved with ancient script. The oracle bones were dated to the Shang dynasty when the origin of the ones floating around in markets was discovered near the village of Xiaotun in Henan Province, the Shang capital.

The late 19th, early 20th century was a turbulent time in China. Cultural patrimony issues were not governmental priorities and foreign scholars and collectors stepped into the void. One of them was Lionel Charles Hopkins, brother and biographer of the famous poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a diplomat who went to China in 1874 and remained there until his retirement in 1908. He collected almost 900 oracle bones which he studied over the four decades of his retirement. He died in 1952 at the age of 98. Hopkins left his oracle bone collection to Cambridge University.

Hopkins broke a lot of ground in the study of oracle bones, but he too was fooled by fakes. There were so many of them that for a couple of decades after their discovery, the authenticity of all of them were in question. It was only when excavations began in the late 1920s at Xiaotun that large numbers of oracle bones were confirmed to be part of the Shang royal archive. About 200,000 thousand bone fragments are known today, a quarter of which are inscribed.

Diviners used the oracle bones to invoke the ancestors of the Shang dynasty royal family who were believed to know the future. They were also thought to have influence on future events. When a Shang royal wanted to know the outcome of a war, the success of a harvest, an impending natural disaster or anything else, they turned to diviners and their oracle bones. On the reverse of the bones diviners carved out divots known as divination pits. The pits were exposed to fire, creating vertical cracks with a short perpendicular crack halfway down on the obverse of the bone. The cracks were interpreted as answers to the diviners’ questions and those questions were engraved next to the crack. The divination served double duty: predicting the future and securing the benign intervention of the ancestors. The inscriptions are invaluable records of Shang society, and can be of international import. One of the oracle bones in the Hopkins Collection is the oldest dated record of a lunar eclipse known in the world.

The texture of the bones and writing is important to historians, as are the divination pits and cracks. Within a couple of years of Wang Yirong’s discovery, rubbings of the inscriptions were published in books and suddenly collectors were clamouring to buy oracle bones. As usually happens when there’s an overwhelming demand for a finite material, unscrupulous dealers quickly produced as many forgeries as possible. Many oracle bones have both original engravings, pits and cracks, and forged text added to make a simple bone look fancier. The more text, the more expensive the artifact. Sorting out the genuine from the fraud requires careful examination of the bones, their inscriptions and cracks.

Since the earliest discoveries, the surface of oracle bones were captured with rubbings. In 1982, oracle bone expert Mme. Qi Wenxin visited the UK to make rubbings of all the bones in public and private collections. Cambridge’s Hopkins Collection was one of her stops. These rubbings are not the kind you made on gravestones in 5th grade art class with a crayon and tracing paper. Mme. Qi’s tools were a brush made of fine human hair, the finest quality Chinese black ink, very thin tissue-like paper, a piece of silk wrapped around natural cotton and a water infused with the herb baiji (Bletilla Rhizome). Baiji is used in traditional Chinese medicine to stop bleeding and reduce swelling, but infused in the rubbing water, it helps the paper adhere to the bone. If plain water was used, the paper would come off during rubbing.

The side of the bone not being rubbed was fixed to the table with putty. Then the paper was placed on top and brushed with the baiji solution. Mme. Qi tapped the wet paper into the engraving by lightly hitting it with the human hair brush until every letter of the inscription showed through the paper. When the paper was dry, the silk-wrapped cotton was dabbed into the sticky ink and stippled on with care not to cake it on too thickly. Once the ink layer dried, another was applied. The process was repeated until the inscription becomes clear, a white negative against the inky black background. You can see Mme. Qi at work in this video.

Now the Cambridge University Library has taken the first step in establishing a new kind of archive. It has scanned the first of the 614 oracle bones in its collection in high resolution 3D. As far as we know, it’s the first oracle bone in the world to be 3D scanned.

The image brings into sharp focus not only the finely incised questions on the obverse of the bone, but also the divination pits engraved on the reverse and the scorch marks caused by the application of heat to create the cracks (which were interpreted as the answers from the spirit world). These can be seen more clearly than by looking at the actual object itself, and without the risk of damage by handling the original bone.

Once scanned, a precise replica of the bone was 3D printed so it can handled and examined by students and researchers who would otherwise not be allowed access to the originals for conservation purposes. If the 3D scanning trend catches on, there’s another exciting possibility: that more of the hundreds of thousands of fragments may be pieced back together thanks to computer matching.

Cambridge UL Oracle Bone CUL.52 Hi Res
by Professor Dominic Powlesland
on Sketchfab

35,000-year-old Twitter logo found in France

Friday, March 18th, 2016

In 2003, a salvage excavation in advance of highway construction in the Dordogne region of southwestern France discovered a dense group of prehistoric occupations, 10 sites in an area of less than two square miles. One of them, Cantalouette II, is an open-air site that was used as a flint workshop, as evidenced by the large quantity of flakes and knapping debris. There are seven layers, ranging in date from the Middle Pleistocene to the Holocene. In the Aurignacian layer (35,000 – 31,000 years old), archaeologists found a remarkably naturalistic bird (pdf) engraved on a flint flake. Other engraved flakes were found at the site, but none of them were figurative. In fact, this is the first example of figurative art discovered in an open-air Aurignacian site.

The bird is depicted with its head raised and its wings open, parallel lines representing the feathers. The beak is short, thin and pointed. A single eye is visible with a small line underneath that may represent an undereye feature. A projection on the left side of the bird may be the legs or the tail. It’s a capture of dynamic action, a bird in the moment of drinking, courting or about to take flight. Or express itself it in 140 characters.

Another unique feature of this piece, besides a silhouette so reminiscent of Internet-era iconography, is the style of engraving. Usually artwork from the Upper Paleolithic period is an incised outline. Some of the details may give the impression of relief and in very rare cases actual reliefs have been found, like the friezes of the Roc-de-Sers rock shelter (ca. 17,000 B.C.). The bird of Cantalouette II, however, is the opposite of the Roc-de-Sers animals in that it was made by the removal of the material inside the figure, not by the carving away of material outside of it leaving a high relief behind.

This sunken relief is unique among the Aurignacian artworks. The technique has never been seen before. To better understand the engraving process, researchers recreated it experimentally and found it was completed in six phases. First the outline was incised, then the interior was scraped with stone tool that left a wavy surface. The third step was adding detail to the head and beak with an L-shaped bevel. Another bevel was then engraved to add dimension to the upper left wing area. In phase five, the artist micro-pecked the inside of the head giving it a distinctive rough surface that conveys the different type of feathers birds have on their heads as opposed to their wings. Lastly, the eye and the subciliar line were added.

Also rare is the subject matter. Upper Paleolithic animal figures are more often land-based — horses, bovines, ibex, bison — and while birds have been found before, including the fragment of an outline bird figure at Roc-de-Sers, none of them are so naturalistic and detailed. Roc-de-Sers dates to the Magdalenian period of the Upper Paleolithic, thousands of years after the Cantalouette II bird was carved. Narrowing it down specifically to the Aurignacian period, there are only two other known birds: an ivory water bird from Hohle Fels (ca. 39,000-34,000 years old) and an owl in the Chauvet cave. Neither of them have the same attention to detail as the Cantalouette II bird. Because of those details, experts were able to compare its features to birds found in the fossil record of Upper Paleolithic southwestern France. The likeliest candidates are the passerine, the wryneck or partridge/quail.

After all this trouble, the piece was simply discarded onto the pile of lithic fragments, the detritus of the prehistoric tool-making workshop. It wasn’t meant to be permanent like rock art on walls. It wasn’t even meant to be portable, like something pretty to wear or display. It seems to have been the artistic impulse of a flint knapper who, having completed his oeuvre, threw it away.

This engraving is distinct in the rarity of the animal depicted and the use of innovative techniques. They suggest an absence of rigid artistic traditions and techniques during the Aurignacian. This absence of canons is in fact characteristic of Aurignacian art, despite certain convergences, such as the depiction of dangerous animals in the Swabian Jura, Dordogne, Adèche and northern Italy. At the doline site of Cantalouette II, the artist was thus free to “test” other manners of representing volumes and outlines. The artistic liberty of this artist can be correlated with that of the Aurignacian flint knappers in the Bergeracois region, who surpassed their technical skills by producing unusually large blades. The object itself, discarded in a flint knapping workshop, suggests the existence of an ephemeral form of artistic expression, a behavior previously unknown in the Aurignacian, and which raises questions about the function of the earliest figurative art in Europe.

Torlonia collection to see the light after 40 years in the basement

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

One of the most important private collections of ancient sculpture in the world hasn’t been on display in four decades. In fact, it really hasn’t been on public display since the 19th century. The Torlonia family’s collection of antiquities, 620 world-class Greek, Roman and Etruscan statues and sarcophagi, has been favorably compared without hyperbole to the ancient sculpture collections of the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, and the Italian government has tried for years to craft an agreement with the family that would allow these unique treasures to be seen by the public. On Tuesday, March 15th, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced that the long-sought agreement has been reached and about 60-90 of the most important pieces in the Torlonia collection will go on display in 2017. The details haven’t been worked out yet, but the likely venue will be the Palazzo Caffarelli Clementino on the Capitoline Hill.

The Torlonia family are new, by Roman standards. The founder was Marino Torlonia, born Marin Tourlonias in Auvergne, France, in 1725. He moved to Rome and became the manservant of powerful Neopolitan cardinal Troiano Acquaviva d’Aragona, best remembered today for having employed Giacomo Casanova in 1744 only to dismiss him when he was discovered hiding a teenaged runaway in the cardinal’s residence on the Piazza di Spagna. Acquaviva died in 1747, leaving Marino Torlonia an inheritance which he used to set himself up as a textile merchant.

The business was successful and Marino parlayed some of his income into a small lending concern. When he helped Pope Pius VI with some pesky financial matters, he was granted the title of duke. It was his son Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia who took both businesses and ran with them. He made savvy deals with the French occupiers under Napoleon and when the French troops left after the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Giovanni was flush with cash, cash the old noble families distinctly lacked. The Banco Marino Torlonia was delighted to loan them money with their estates and furnishings as collateral.

Pope Pius VII granted Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia a princely title in 1814, the first of many. Just two generations removed from Marin Tourlonias, the Torlonia family was one of the richest in Rome, as ennobled as it could be and, thanks to advantageous marriages, related to some of the greatest noble houses of the city — the Colonna, Orsini and Borghese. When those loans went into default, the Torlonia family accumulated lands and artworks by the cartload, including pieces from the Orisini, Cesarini and Caetani-Ruspoli families and a prized 17th century collection of ancient sculptures from the Giustiniani family.

Not that they needed the loan collateral to make out like bandits. After the upheaval of the Napoleonic period, many noble families were compelled to sell their properties and private collections. The great collection of dedicated antiquarian Cardinal Alessandro Albani was sold along with his Roman palace, Villa Albani, to the Chigi family who in turn sold it to the Torlonia. Giovanni also bought more than a thousands pieces from the estate of sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, among which were important sculptures Cavaceppi had acquired from the collections of the Savelli, Cesi and Pio da Carpi families.

Their extensive property holdings proved invaluable sources of ancient statuary as well. Draining swamps and developing lands, the Torlonia unearthed antiquities hand over fist, particularly from the man-made Roman harbour of Portus, the town of Fiumicino where Leonardo da Vinci Airport now stands, and the ancient Etruscan cities of Vulci and Cerveteri

In 1859, Giovanni’s son Alessandro founded a private museum in one of their palaces on the Via della Lungara. The sculptures, including about a hundred Roman portrait busts from the late Republican and Imperial period so prized many scholars consider them superior to the busts in the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, were installed in the 77 rooms of the palace. Already by the 1870s the public was not allowed inside the museum. I can’t confirm whether they ever were, for that matter. Alessandro Torlonia granted access only to his aristocratic friends and occasionally to experts. The collection was catalogued repeatedly in the 1870s and 1880s. Some of the catalogues were illustrated with photographs, among the first in Italy to be printed with pictures instead of drawings. (here’s a text-only example from 1881)

In the 1960s and 1970s, the collection was gradually packed up and stored, perhaps in other Torlonia properties, perhaps in the basement of the old museum. Another Alessandro Torlonia, great-grandson of the museum’s founder, got permission from the government to repair the roof, but those repairs proved to be a smokescreen for an illegal subdivision of the palace into 90 tiny apartments. A 1979 judgement from Italy’s supreme court of appeals found that the sculptures had been stored in “narrow, insufficient, dangerous spaces [...] removed from the museum [...] crammed together in unbelievable fashion, leaned against each other without care for consistency or history.” The court ruled that the private owner should pay a fine to the state equal to the value lost or diminished by this dire, careless treatment of cultural patrimony. That ruling was never enforced.

With tension between the state and the family, the past 40 years have seen many long negotiations go nowhere. Finally the parties have managed to come together, although the vast majority of the Torlonia sculptures will not be on display, at least not right away. I hope this is just a first step. None of these works should be gathering dust in basements.

The history of this collection, how it was amassed from acquisitions, debt collections and excavations on Torlonia properties, may be a central theme of the first exhibition. It’s particularly relevant to the Torlonia collection as opposed to some of the older ones built gradually by noble families over the course of centuries. The way entire collections were absorbed by the Torlonia makes for a unique perspective into the history of antiquities collection in Rome, with built-in organizational divisions, like, for instance, the pieces from the Cavaceppi collection in one section, the pieces from the Giustiniani collection in another. The sculptures unearthed on Torlonia estates could be in another section.

Again, it’s still in the early stages, but the Ministry is hoping to make this a traveling exhibition. After the Roman show, the treasures of the Torlonia collection will go to top museums in Europe and the United States. Eventually a permanent place will be found for it back home in Rome.

First ancient wood caissons found in Corinth harbour

Monday, March 14th, 2016

The ancient Greek city-state of Corinth was fortuitously located on the well-traveled isthmus that connects the Peloponnese peninsula to mainland Greece, but it was three miles inland. To take advantage of its central position on the narrow isthmus, Corinth built two ports: Lechaion to the north for maritime trade headed west towards Italy and Kenchreai to the south for maritime trade headed east towards Asia Minor and Egypt. Corinth’s control of the isthmus ensured it remained a dominant economic and military power in the region from classical Greece through the Byzantine period.

The harbour town of Lechaion on the Gulf of Corinth, therefore, was a prosperous hub of Mediterranean maritime trade for more than 1,000 years, in continuous use from the 6th century B.C. to the 6th century A.D. The remains of the ancient harbour are underwater now and until recently were barely explored. The Lechaion Harbour Project (LHP), an international collaboration between the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Institute at Athens, seeks to remedy this oversight. Their marine archaeologists have been exploring the ruins of Lechaion for the past two years, while geologists use the latest technology to do a geophysical survey of the seabed. The newly developed 3D parametric sub-bottom profiler will allow them to capture 3D images of structures hidden underneath the sand.

Last year, the LHP team discovered massive squared blocks that were once part of two monumental piers, a smaller pier, a breakwater, the stone-lined entrance canal into the inner harbor basins and most remarkably, the remains of six wooden caissons. The Lechaion caissons were large wooden barges laden with concrete which were floated out to a specific area and deliberately sunk together to create a breakwater to protect moored ships and their cargoes from wind and surf. All together the surviving caissons are 57 meters (187 feet) long.

Roman imperial engineers employed a similar technology on a large scale at Caesarea Maritima in Israel in the late first century BC, but these are the first of their kind ever discovered in Greece with their wooden elements still preserved. A preliminary C-14 carbon date places the caissons in the time frame of the Leonidas Basilica, the largest Christian church of its time. Construction of the basilica began in the middle of the 5th century AD. It was 180 meters long – about the same size as the first building phase of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Scholars generally assume that harbour facilities in the Mediterranean were built in the Greek and Roman period, then simply repaired and maintained during the Byzantine period. The discovery of the mole constructed of wooden caissons challenges this picture.

Through no fault of its own, the newly discovered Byzantine construction was not long-lived. Lechaion was destroyed in the late 6th or early 7th century A.D. It’s an archaeological miracle that any part of the caissons survived. The warm water and high salt concentration of the Mediterranean make it a paradise for woodworm. They can devour wood and other organic materials in a matter of months. Before this discovery, only traces of the presence of caissons have been found, the wood itself having long since decayed.

Danish archaeologist Bjorn Lovén of the University of Copenhagen first spotted the caissons on a dive.

“I swam in full diving equipment and suddenly saw lots of planks and poles on the sea bed, and my heart skipped a beat. First I was skeptical, because it was almost too good to be true. But deep down I knew, that it had to be antique wood for building, since no one [built] harbours that way later on. Still I was in doubt, until we got it confirmed.”

The wood is in shockingly good condition, which gives the archaeologists hope they’ll find more organic material in the inner and outer harbour, maybe even one of the Holy Grails of maritime archaeology: the trireme, a warship with three banks of oars which was instrumental in Greece’s victory in the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century B.C. Ancient sources like Thucydides, Pliny and Diodorus Siculus claim triremes were invented in Corinth. Thucydides notes in The History of the Peloponnesian War that the Corinthian shipbuilder Ameinokles made four of them for the Samians in the 8th century B.C. The ruins of trireme shipsheds have been found at the ancient Athenian harbour of Piraeus, but not the ships themselves. The discovery of so much surviving wood from the caissons makes it a possibility, albeit a very remote one, that the LHP team might one day find the remains of a trireme.

There are some great views of the wood caissons in this video:

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