Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Inca child mummy genome reveals lost history of South America

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

When a member of a mountaineering club first spotted what would prove to be the frozen mummy of an Inca child 17,400 feet up Argentina’s Aconcagua Mountain in 1985, he mistook it for a patch of grass. The other climbers, knowing grass didn’t grow at that altitude, checked it out and found not vegetation, but black and yellow feathers on the headdress of a young boy who had been sacrificed on the mountain 500 years earlier. With only part of the mummy exposed by erosion, the climbers wisely left it alone and returned to the city of Mendoza at the foothills of the Andes where they alerted archaeologist Dr. Juan Schobinger to the find. Fifteen days later, Schobinger and a team of volunteer archaeologists climbed the mountain and carefully excavated the mummy bundle.

This was a milestone in the history of mountain archaeology because it’s extremely rare that the professionals get to excavate the find before the people who discover it. Folks just can’t resist having a dig, sometimes because they were only up there in the first place looking for ancient treasure, as in the case of the El Plomo Mummy found in the Chilean Andes in 1954, or because they thought it was a recent death and called the cops, as in the case of Otzi the Iceman or out of simple curiosity.

The Aconcagua Mountain region in northwest of Argentina was once part of Collasuyu, the southern-most province of the Inca Empire. It was in this empire that lasted less than 100 years from 1438 A.D. until the Spanish conquest in 1532 A.D. that mountain sacrifices reached their apogee. The Incas built shrines at the peak of the highest mountains — Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia — and there practiced the ceremony of capacocha, the ritual sacrifice of children on occasions of great import like the death of an emperor or in the wake of a natural disaster. The children selected were the most beautiful and healthiest in the empire. They would be given narcotics and alcohol, taken to mountaintop shrines and either left to die of exposure or killed outright.

The Aconcagua child appears to have been killed by a blow to the head when he was about seven years old. The cold and dry of the Andean environment preserved his body, the two wool tunics he was wearing, the wool, hair and vegetable sandals on his feet, and multiple layers of cotton cloths and fiber cords wrapped around him, included the outermost wrap festooned with yellow parrot feathers. A total of 25 textiles were found in the bundle. Because the mummy was excavated with proper archaeological procedures, the exceptional preservation was maintained and additional objects were found in the fill underneath the child: six figurines, three human with clothes and feather accessories, and three stylized flames, one gold-plated and two made of Spondylus shell.

Preserved first by 500 years in a frigid and arid climate and then by careful archaeological practice — a replica is on display at the Archaeological Museum of Cuyo while the mummy itself is kept in a freezer at all time — the Aconcagua mummy was a rare pristine subject for interdisciplinary studies. Researchers found red dye, probably from the achiote tree, on his skin and a red liquid, also probably involving achiote, in his stomach. He’s been examined by medical doctors to determine cause of death, been subject to histological, microbiological, osteological, genetic and environmental analysis. He’s been X-rayed and CT scanned.

Now a team of geneticists has has mapped his mitochondrial genome, a first for any Native American mummy. In fact, not only is he the first Native American mummy whose full mitochondrial DNA has been successfully extracted, he’s the first for whom complete sequencing has even been attempted. Geneticist Antonio Salas from the University of Santiago de Compostela had high hopes that the Aconcagua mummy’s unique preservation conditions might have preserved enough of his DNA to be testable. A small sample of the child’s lung was tested — internal organs are less likely to be contaminated — and all 37 genes passed down from his mother were sequenced.

The boy’s pattern of genetic variations placed him in a population called C1b, a common lineage in Mesoamerica and the Andes that dates all the way back to the earliest Paleoindian settlements, more than 18,000 years ago. But C1b in itself is very diverse — as its members spread throughout Central and South America, smaller groups became isolated from one another and started developing their own particular genetic variations. As a result, C1b contains many genetically distinct subgroups. The Aconcagua boy’s genome didn’t fit into any of them. Instead, he belonged to a population of native South Americans that had never been identified. Salas and his team dubbed this genetic group C1bi, which they say likely arose in the Andes about 14,000 years ago. They detail their findings today in Scientific Reports.

When Salas combed through genetic databases, ancient and modern, he found just four more individuals who appear to belong to C1bi. Three are present-day people from Peru and Bolivia, whereas another sample comes from an individual from the ancient Wari Empire, which flourished from 600 to 1000 C.E. and predated the Inca in Peru. Clearly, C1bi is extremely rare today, but the fact that it has now popped up in two ancient DNA samples suggests that it could have been more common in the past, says Andrés Moreno-Estrada, a population geneticist who studies the Americas at Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato and was not involved in the current work. If you sample just one or two individuals, “what are the chances that you pick the rare guy?” he says. “Most likely, you’re picking the common guy.”

It’s likely only so rare today because the Spanish and their diseases did such a thorough job of annihilating the native population. An estimated 90% were dead shortly after the conquest, and the rest interbred with Europeans, other Native American groups and Africans imported to the continent as slaves making the genes of modern Central and South Americans very distant indeed from the ones of their pre-conquest ancestors. The mummy’s DNA is frozen in time just as he was, providing us a rare window into past peoples. For instance, we know now that it took only 4,000 years for the earliest migrants to America to travel from Alaska to the Andes. The speed with which the continent was populated has been much debated, so this is very signficant new information.

Salas plans to go even further. He is working on mapping the complete nuclear genome of the Aconcagua mummy and when that’s done, he will turn his attentions to sequencing the genome of all the microorganisms in the boy’s digestive tract. That would lend new insight into the evolution of the microorganisms that live inside of us, helping us or actively trying to kill us.

You can read the full study here.

Two pieces of Roman sign found 122 years apart

Friday, November 13th, 2015

University of Reading archaeologists have discovered a fragment of a Roman inscription that matches a piece unearthed in 1891. Both pieces of the marble slab were excavated from the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum next to the modern village of Silchester in Hampshire. The first and larger fragment was discovered by the Society of Antiquaries of London which excavated the entirety of the town within the Roman walls between 1890 and 1909. The piece had two truncated lines of text, “IN” on the top row, “AT” on the bottom. It was added to Reading Museum’s Silchester collection where it has remained for nearly a century and a quarter. The second fragment was found by the university team in 2013 during the excavation of Insula III, a block of the Roman town, just 10 meters (33 feet) away from the find spot of the first piece. The second piece has only one truncated row extant inscribed with the letters “BA.”

While just a small piece of a marble slab, it’s of considerable archaeological significance on its own because it’s likely a remnant of a plaque erected on a building to commemorate its construction or the deity to whom the structure was dedicated. Archaeologists believe the dedication was broken when the building was destroyed in the middle to late 1st century A.D., and very little material evidence of the destruction of an important building has been found in Britain.

The fragment was analyzed by Oxford University’s Dr. Roger Tomlin, an expert in Roman inscriptions. He’s the one who made the connection to the first fragment, finding they were both inscribed with the same style and size lettering on a slab of the same material — Purbeck Marble, a limestone native to Dorset that was extensively quarried in Roman Britain — and dimensions. Tomlin believes they are adjacent pieces, that the “BA” comes after the “AT” on the bottom row of the first fragment to spell out the word “At(e)ba(tum)” meaning “of the Atrebates,” the Gallic founders of the town of Calleva in the 1st century B.C.

Despite this amazing occurrence there could be more revelations to come. The name of the building is yet to be revealed but previous work at Silchester has connected the site to the infamous emperor Nero, as well as queen Boudica who led a famous rebellion against the Roman Empire.

Professor Fulford added: “We now know what the bottom line of the sign reads – however the top line remains a mystery. It’s a tantalising thought that this might link to Nero himself who is known to have commissioned major building projects in Silchester. Our work to uncover the origins of Silchester continues next year — perhaps a name could emerge. It’s unlikely — but this story goes to show that when it comes to archaeology, anything is possible.”

Calleva was a fortified settlement or oppidium that was the Atrebates’ seat of power. Numismatic evidence suggests that it was something of a mini-kingdom first ruled by Commius, a chieftain who at first had been Julius Caesar’s ally in the conquest of Gaul but who then turned on him and fought with Vercingetorix in his revolt against Rome in 52 B.C. According to Caesar’s legate Aulus Hirtius who wrote the eighth and last book of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, in 51 B.C. Commius finally struck a deal with Mark Anthony: he’d take his troublemaking ass out of Gaul on condition that he never had to see a Roman again. Anthony agreed and Commius crossed the Channel to Britain with a small group of followers.

It was that group which built the oppidium of Calleva. Coins have been found with Commius’ name and the names of his successors, so it seems Calleva was something of a city-state with him as its ruler. The Atrebates was added to Calleva’s name in a nod to its founders when the Iron Age oppidium was converted into a proper Roman town with streets on a grid pattern and solid stone walls after Claudius’ conquest of Britain in 43 A.D. The city was at a crossroads leading to important Roman urban centers, so it prospered and was known to have several large public buildings any one of which might have had a relevant inscription slab affixed to its walls.

Both inscription fragments will be on display in the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life through November 27th.

Roman amphitheater found in Volterra

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Last July, workers on a waterway restoration project near the Diana Gate on the north side of the ancient Etruscan city of Volterra stumbled on the remains of two walls 20 meters (66 feet) long. Archaeologists from the regional Superintendency were observing the works and took over when the ancient walls were found. Extrapolating from the shape and direction of the structures already unearthed, they dug test trenches in two locations that would have more walls if the building were, as they suspected, an amphitheater. Lo and behold, they found exactly what they expected to find: two more masonry walls each ten meters long with a marked elliptical curve.

Calculating from the established curvature, the building is an oval 80 meters (262 feet) long by 60 meters (197 feet) wide, which is a pretty massive structure for people to forget ever existed. Volterra already has one Roman theater from the late 1st century BC, early 1st century AD that was discovered in 1950 by Volterran native son and historian Enrico Fiumi who was actually a trained economist, not an archaeologist, and whose excavation team was composed of patients from a local psychiatric hospital. The theater was partly dug into the side of a hill in Greek fashion and seated 3500. Some of the seats were found with the names of the most prominent local families, season ticket holders, if you will. A large section of the two-level skene (the building behind the stage) 50 feet high survives.

There is some mention in 15th and 16th century sources of an amphitheater in Volterra, but the writers were considered less than reliable on the details and thought to have been referring to the theater Fiumi discovered rather than a real amphitheater.

The discovery of the amphitheater caused a stir, but there was no funding to continue digging. The city had to go begging hat in hand to the local bank for sponsorship which thankfully they were able to secure. This September excavations resumed. Archaeologists found two rows of steps and additional architectural features were discovered: a large carved block that was part of the cryptoporticus roof and the base of an entrance arch. Like the ancient Etruscan city walls, these features are made of a porous sandstone native to the area called panchina which is soft and easy to work but hardens when exposed to the air.

“This amphitheater was quite large. Our survey dig revealed three orders of seats that could accommodate about 10,000 people. They were entertained by gladiators fights and wild beast baiting,” Elena Sorge, the archaeologist of the Tuscan Superintendency in charge of the excavation, told Discovery News.

By comparison, the Colosseum in Rome could seat more than 50,000 spectators during public games.

“The finding sheds a new light on the history of Volterra, which is most famous for its Etruscan legacy. It shows that during the emperor Augustus’s rule, it was an important Roman center,” she added.

Tuscany’s oldest continuously inhabited town, Volterra was an important urban center from the 6th century BC through the Renaissance, falling under the Roman sphere of influence in the 3rd century and under direct Roman control in the 1st century BC. Although there’s never been any doubt that it retained its cultural and political significance in the imperial era, the discovery of a second much larger public entertainment complex possibly from the 1st century A.D. indicates the city was more prominent and more populated than historians realized.

The goal of this fall’s excavation was very limited: analyze the remains to get a solid idea of what else is out there. With more data to work with, the archaeological team will be able to design a plan for a more thorough future excavation and a budget. Then they’ll have some figures to use when scrambling for more funding.

Bronze Age tomb groaning with riches found in Greece

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Archaeologists digging near the ancient city of Pylos in the Peloponnese region of southwestern Greece have unearthed a richly laden tomb dating to around 1,500 B.C. Led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, the international team was excavating a previously unexplored field next to the Palace of Nestor. They chose to dig in a place where three stones were visible on the ground, thinking they were the remains of a Bronze Age house. They soon realized those stones were the top of a shaft tomb. After two weeks of digging, archaeologists hit gold, figuratively, that is. Literally they hit bronze, but that was just the beginning.

Inside a shaft tomb about five feet deep, four feet wide and eight feet long was the skeleton of an adult male and an eye-popping collection of grave goods. To the left of his chest was a sword three feet long with an ivory hilt overlaid with gold. Underneath the sword was a dagger with a gold hilt in the same embroidery-like technique found on the long sword. To his right were jewels, among them a hoard of more than 1,000 beads of carnelian, amethyst, gold, agate, jasper and gold, most of them drilled through so they could be strung together. Small fragments of a cross-woven textile suggests some of the beads decorated a burial shroud. Near the beads were four solid gold rings, the most that have ever been discovered in a single burial in Greece, plus six silver cups and an assortment of bronze vessels, some with gold or silver trim.

On his chest were two squashed gold cups and a silver cup with a gold rim. By his neck was a unique gold necklace 30-inches long with a box weave chain and finials in a sacral ivy pattern. At his legs and feet were more bronze weapons, including a sword and spearhead, and thin bronze strips likely to be the remains of a suit of armor on top of his body. (Many of the grave goods were placed on top of his coffin when he was buried. When the wood of the coffin decayed, those goods settled on and around the warrior.

Other assorted finds include: a bronze mirror with an ivory handle, more than 50 seal stones intricately carved with Minoan designs of deities, lions, bulls and bull dancers vaulting over the animal’s horns, carved ivory pieces including a griffon and a lion attacking a griffon and six ivory combs.

Before this find, graves this rich were only found in the archaeological site of Mycenae, one of the great military centers of early Greece after which the period (1600 – 1100 B.C.) of its dominance is named. Pylos was thought to be a bit of a backwater compared to the grand city of 30,000, but the ultra-rich graves of Mycenae were multiple burials. The discovery of the wealthiest single burial in ever found in Greece in Pylos means historians may have to revise their understanding of the town’s ancient importance.

Another archaeological boon from this discovery is that we know all the grave goods belong to this one man. The multiple burials made it difficult for archaeologists to identify which artifacts belonged to which person. One hypothesis was that the grave goods could be divided by gender — men get the weapons, women get the combs and beads — but this discovery shows that a gender division doesn’t work because the man was buried with every kind of artifact under the sun.

There was no name or identifying information in the grave, but the burial is older than the palace of Nestor which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C., so these are not the remains of a Homeric hero.

Explains Stocker, “This latest find is not the grave of the legendary King Nestor, who headed a contingent of Greek forces at Troy in Homer’s Iliad. Nor is it the grave of his father, Neleus. This find may be even more important because the warrior pre-dates the time of Nestor and Neleus by, perhaps, 200 or 300 years. That means he was likely an important figure at a time when this part of Greece was being indelibly shaped by close contact with Crete, Europe’s first advanced civilization.”

Thus, the tomb may have held a powerful warrior or king — or even a trader or a raider — who died at about 30 to 35 years of age but who helped to lay the foundations of the Mycenaean culture that later flourished in the region.

Davis speculates, “Whoever he was, he seems to have been celebrated for his trading or fighting in nearby island of Crete and for his appreciation of the more-sophisticated and delicate are of the Minoan civilization (found on Crete), with which he was buried.”

The team found the tomb in May, but the discovery was kept under wraps until Monday when the Greek Culture Ministry announced it to the world as “the most important prehistoric funerary monument to have come to light on mainland Greece in the last 65 years”

The more than 1,400 artifacts recovered from the grave are now at the Archaeological Museum of Chora where they will be conserved and analyzed. Because so many of the pieces seem to have originated in Minoan Crete, archaeologists are hoping the study of the grave goods will give them a new understanding of the trade networks connecting ancient Crete and Mycenaean Greece.

Raiders of Alaric’s lost tomb

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Anybody who thought that appeal of the witch trial was a waste of state resources better get their Valium dispensers locked and loaded. At a press conference on Wednesday, October 21st, a committee of politicians and scientists announced they’ll be searching for the legendary treasure-filled tomb of Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, under a river flowing through Cosenza, a city in the region of Calabria near the toe of Italy’s boot.

“It’s a real-life Indiana Jones hunt,” said Francesco Sisci, the project coordinator.

“You have a legend of long-lost treasure, even the Nazis – Heinrich Himmler came here in 1937 to try to find the hoard for Hitler. He stayed in a Swabian castle. This is the stuff of Hollywood and Steven Spielberg.

“If there really is 25 tons of gold, it would be worth around one billion euros at today’s prices,” he said.

When the project coordinator invokes Indiana Jones, you know it’s legit. This scheme is the brain child of a committee formed last year by the municipality of Cosenza to develop new cultural and touristic events around the legend of Alaric. The tomb doesn’t actually have to be found, therefore, in order for the search to fulfill its ultimate goal of promoting Consenza’s greatest claim to fame. Which is a good thing, because the odds of finding said tomb are so miniscule they make the Richard III parking lot excavation look like a sure shot.

Alaric, once a leader of a band of Gothic foederati (irregular troops who fought with the Roman army) under Emperor Theodosius I, has gone down in history as the first invader to sack Rome in 800 years, since the Gaul Brennus 387 B.C. Rome wasn’t actually the capital anymore when Alaric took it in 410 A.D., however. It hadn’t been since 286 when Diocletian made Mediolanum (modern-day Milan) the capital of the Western Empire.

Alaric besieged Mediolanum during his first invasion of Italy in 401, spurring the young and feckless Western Roman emperor Honorius to move the capital to Ravenna in 402 because it was surrounded by marshes, well-fortified and had direct access to the Adriatic, ideal should a hasty escape become necessary. His personal safety was his only interest. The new capital was horribly situated to protect Italy from barbarian invaders. It was only through the efforts of Flavius Stilicho, Honorius’ top general and former regent during the emperor’s minority, that Alaric’s army was kept at bay on multiple occasions from 401 until 408 when Honorius had Stilicho arrested and executed, ostensibly for conspiring to overthrow him.

In the first decade of the 5th century, Alaric besieged Rome three times, but he wasn’t just in it for the pillage and loot. He wanted the emperor to appoint him commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army and grant him huge tracts of land in Pannonia. Putting pressure on Rome, which while no longer the capital was still seat of the Senate and the symbolic center of the empire, was a means to those ends. The first siege after Stilicho’s death in late 408, ended with a massive payoff. According to Zosimus’ New History, the Senate gave Alaric 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk robes, 3,000 fleeces dyed scarlet in exchange for him lifting the siege.

One year later Alaric’s forces besieged Rome again after the failure of negotiations with Honorius. This time only the proclamation of a new emperor would do to get Alaric to lift the siege, and so Priscus Attalus was installed as puppet. While Attalus and Alaric had some military successes in Italy, enough to scare Honorius into preparing a flight to Constantinople, they soon hit the wall and Alaric dumped his puppet less than a year after installing him. He tried negotiating with Honorius again, but gave up for good after a sneak attack from Honorius’ Goth ally Sarus when Alaric was waiting to meet the emperor at the appointed time.

On August 24th, 410 A.D., the Visigoths reached the Salarian Gate of Rome. This time there was no siege. Alaric’s army spent three days sacking Rome, but it was quite respectful, as sacks go. They didn’t set it on fire — only a few public buildings were burned down for strategic reasons — and they spared the churches of Saint Peter and Paul. They didn’t indiscriminately kill people either, although they enslaved thousands.

Laden with the treasures of 800 years of Roman history, the Visigoths turned south where Alaric hoped to cross over into Sicily and from there to Africa, the granary of the empire. His fleet destroyed by storms, he never did make it to Sicily. A few months after the sack, Alaric suddenly became ill and died in Consentia. Jordanes describes the aftermath in his 6th century history of the Gothic people Getica:

His people mourned for him with the utmost affection. Then turning from its course the river Busentus near the city of Consentia — for this stream flows with its wholesome waters from the foot of a mountain near that city — they led a band of captives into the midst of its bed to dig out a place for his grave. In the depths of this pit they buried Alaric, together with many treasures, and then turned the waters back into their channel. And that none might ever know the place, they put to death all the diggers.

So. That is what the Cosenza search is up against: a tomb rumored to have been dug underneath a river in a location known only to slaves killed before they could share that knowledge. Past attempts to find the fabled treasure have all involved digging along the riverbank, a blind, clumsy approach that this new effort will eschew in favor of the latest technology.

By matching contemporary accounts by Roman historians with the local geography, the researchers have found five places where they think the treasure may lie. They include a 1.5 mile stretch of river that runs through Cosenza but also caves near the nearby village of Mendicino. [...]

The latest technology will be used to search for rectangle-shaped “anomalies” underground in the hunt for the fabled tomb of Alaric, said Amerigo Giuseppe Rota, the geologist leading the project.

“We think Alaric was buried at least five to six metres underground. But in the last 1,500 years the river bed has risen by about 1.5 metres, so his tomb could be up to eight metres below ground now,” he said.

Sure, why not? It could be. It could also not exist at all. The whole diverted river story could be a legend written 140 years after the events it purports to describe. The idea that there are 25 tons of gold under the Busento River is fanciful at best. The Visigoths would not have buried all of their Roman loot with Alaric. Even if the sources are correct that he was buried with his horse and treasure according to pagan custom (Alaric was an Arian Christian, but he held to some of his people’s traditional religious practices as well), they would have been grave goods, not tons and tons of gold.

Anyway the caper isn’t expected to cost much. The early geophysical surveys were funded by private donors and while there’s talk of the government in Rome chipping in, public funding isn’t likely to materialize anytime soon.

Repair of King Tutankhamun’s beard begins

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

The restoration of the golden funerary mask of King Tutankhamun has begun after last year’s botched attempted to reattach the false beard left it with a thick, ugly layer of visible epoxy glue and scratches on the gold. The mask was removed from public view on the second floor of the Egyptian Museum two weeks ago and moved to a laboratory. A team of German and Egyptian conservators led by Christian Eckmann examined it thoroughly, using a microscope to assess its condition and figuring out how best to approach the removal of the epoxy without damaging the gold.

“We have some uncertainties now, we don’t know how deep the glue went inside the beard, and so we don’t know how long it will take to remove the beard,” [Christian Eckmann] said on the sidelines of a news conference with the antiquities minister, Mamdouh el-Damaty, and Tarek Tawfik, director-general of the still-under-construction Grand Egyptian Museum near the pyramids.

“We try to make all the work by mechanical means … we use wooden sticks which work quite well at the moment, then there is another strategy we could implement, slightly warming up the glue,” he said. “It’s unfortunately epoxy resin which is not soluble.”

The process of removing the beard by scraping away the glue with wooden sticks could take at least a month. Once the thick glue layer has been removed, the team will study how to reattach the beard. The beard has a pin that fits into a slot on the chin, but it’s been loose since Howard Carter discovered it in 1922. A 1941 restoration added a thin layer of adhesive to keep the beard stable. In the seven decades since then, the adhesive weakened, which is likely why the beard fell off when it was jostled last year during routine work on the display’s lighting. A joint scientific committee will decide the best method of reattachment.

There are two components to the restoration project: the detachment/reattachment of the beard, and a comprehensive study of the materials and techniques used to manufacture the mask. While the gold mask of Tutankhamun has been one of the most photographed artifacts in the world since its discovery, it has never been thoroughly documented and studied with modern scientific methods. Having to repair this reprehensible conservation disaster does therefore have something of a silver lining.

The funding for the restoration comes from the German Foreign Ministry which is donating 50,000 euros ($57,000) as part of its Cultural Preservation Program.

Imperial ramp of Domitian opens to public

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

For the first time since it was discovered in 1900, a monumental ramp built by Emperor Domitian in Rome opened to the public on Tuesday, October 20th. Domitian built the ramp in the second half of the 1st century A.D. to connect the Roman Forum, the administrative and political heart of the city, to the imperial palace complex of the Palatine, the city’s center of power. With high walls flanked by storerooms, the imperial ramp went up seven levels with six turns between them and was as much as 35 meters (115 feet) high. Of the seven original ramps levels, four remain, but they are more than sufficient to convey the majesty of the space and the symbolic significance of the steep ascension from popular politics to imperial might. Visitors who walk the ramp will emerge atop the Palatine to a breathtaking view of the Roman Forum that before now regular folks haven’t had the chance to experience.

Also restored is a great hall which in the early Middle Ages was converted into the Oratorio of the Forty Martyrs, dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Built no later than the 8th century, the Oratorio is adjacent to the Byzantine church of Santa Maria Antiqua, famed for its rare frescoes, and signficant portions of the Oratorio’s original Byzantine frescoes have survived as well. They date to the 8th and 9th centuries and depict a procession of saints and possibly St. Anthony of Egypt. The floor is made of repurposed marble fragments in a random jigsaw arrangement. The Oratorio has been accessible to the public in a limited way before, but just on its own. The new restoration has reintegrated it into the ramp, making it the entrance to Domitian’s complex.

The ramp was discovered by architect, engineer and archaeologist Giacomo Boni. Boni was appointed director of excavations of the Roman Forum in 1898 and he dug until works were interrupted by World War I in 1916. The years between 1899 and 1905 were particularly intensive. Boni made major discoveries during this time, among them the Lapis Niger and Vulcanal, the Regia, the Aedes Vestae (shrine of Vesta), an archaic necropolis next to the temple of Antoninus and Faustina and the Byzantine church of Santa Maria Antiqua.

When he unearthed the imperial ramp of Domitian, he set about restoring it almost as soon as he found it, rebuilding the fallen brickwork of the vast vaulted ceilings of the first two levels and clearing the path all the way through to its connecting point with the Clivus Victoriae, a sloping road that went uphill from the Velabro, a former swamp between the Tiber and the Forum, to the top of the Palatine. The section of the ramp linking to the Clivus is still undergoing work, but is scheduled to open to visitors in March.

A temporary exhibition (it ends January 10th, 2016) inside the ramp puts on display a selection of the most important ancient artifacts discovered during the excavation of the Forum. Also on display will be surviving 17th century wall frescos Boni stripped from the church of Santa Maria Liberatrice before demolishing it to expose the more ancient and glamorous Santa Maria Antiqua which had been part of Domitian’s imperial palace complex before being converted to a Christian church in the 6th century. The hall that would be transformed into the Oratorio of the Forty Martyrs, in fact, was just underneath Santa Maria Liberatrice.

This short clip from the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome has a few images of the 1900 excavation and the ramp as it is today.

Bronze Age weapon cache found on Scottish island

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Scotland nature reserve on the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland have discovered a cache of 3,000-year-old broken bronze weapons.

The excavation, directed by the Treasure Trove Unit in conjunction with National Museums Scotland and the RSPB, recovered twelve objects from at least seven swords and spears.

Jill Harden, RSPB Scotland Reserves Archaeologist, said: “This is the first discovery of this size from Argyll for many years. The items were recovered from what had once been a freshwater loch. It seems that they had been purposely broken and cast into the waters as part of a ceremony, most likely as offerings or gifts to the gods or goddesses of the time. It is recorded that bronze swords were found on Coll in the 19th century during drainage works, but their whereabouts today are unknown.”

Trevor Cowie, of National Museums Scotland’s Department of Scottish History & Archaeology, said: “While a fair number of objects from this period have been discovered in the west of Scotland in the past, we generally know very little about the precise places where they were found. Archaeological techniques have developed dramatically since those 19th century discoveries were made, so we have a great opportunity here to resolve many unanswered questions about life on Coll some 3,000 years ago.”

The weapons were on display briefly at the Isle of Coll’s An Cridhe community centre on Thursday and Friday of last week, but have been allocated to the Kilmartin Museum in Argyll for conservation where they will be stabilized and made ready for permanent exhibition to the public.

Jill Harden added: “It is expected that a consortium of local interests, universities and museums will come together to reveal the full history of these objects in time. However, their story is much broader than that of the items themselves. We should be able to reveal what Coll’s landscape was like in the past, how much it has altered over time, and whether there were contemporary environmental stresses that meant people resorted to making offerings to the gods in the hope of change.”

That’s why the RSPB Scotland is involved in archaeological excavations of its lands in the first place, to increase understanding of the wider context and history of the environment.

The RSPB Scotland manages 1,075 hectares of mire, dunes, bog, machair and unimproved grassland on the Isle of Coll. This richly biodiverse ecosystem is home to rare birds including the skylark, twite, barnacle geese, Greenland white-fronted geese and most significantly the rare corncrake, a ground-dwelling bird once common in the UK which has been devastated by mechanical mowing of its tall grass breeding grounds. Working with local farmers, the RSPB Scotland has successfully increased the corncrake population in the Coll preserve just by making a few changes to farming practices like mowing the hay in August instead of July. Since the reserve was acquired in 1991, its corncrake population has more than quadrupled, although it’s still tiny at just 66 calling males.

Florida’s only prehistoric saltwater canoe goes on display

Sunday, October 18th, 2015

A prehistoric dugout canoe discovered in 2001 on Weedon Island in Tampa Bay, Pinellas County, Florida, has gone on display after 14 years of conscientiousness, dedication and hard work. Ken Pachulski and Harry Koran found a piece of the wood sticking out of the mangrove peat on the shore of the Weedon Island Preserve. Once they realized it was likely part of a boat, they did something you very rarely encounter in this kind of story: they reburied the exposed section and left it alone.

Two years later, the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center opened. Figuring the new center would have the resources and know-how to deal with the artifact, Pachulski and Koran alerted the center’s manager Phyllis Kolianos to their discovery, showing her pictures and video they had shot of the canoe. Kolianos worked with county, state, tribal and federal authorities for eight years to secure the necessary permits for a full excavation.

Meanwhile, the center did everything they could to document and monitor the canoe in situ. A test dig was done to recover some samples to date and identify the wood. The wood was confirmed to be pine, the predominant local timber after which the county is named. Radiocarbon dating found the canoe was built between 690 and 1010 A.D.

In 2011, the comprehensive excavation began. Archaeologists and volunteers unearthed the full surviving length of the canoe, an impressive 40 feet of the estimated 45-foot original length. That makes it the longest prehistoric canoe ever found in Florida. It has a raised bow, an indication that the canoe was used to navigate open water, not just inland rivers and lakes. That gives it another unique claim to fame: it is the only saltwater canoe ever found in Florida. Historians know canoes were used to navigate the coastal areas, but unlike those used on inland bodies of water which are found in still, peaty oxygen-free environments, boats buried in salt water with the tidal currents and ever-shifting sands of the Gulf Coast don’t survive. The mangroves of Weedon Island saved this one canoe for posterity.

There are holes in the side of the canoe and archaeologists found a pine pole from the same period underneath of it. These features may be an indication that the canoe was connected to a twin to make a catamaran which could navigate the open water over long distances. The pole may have had other uses, like as a punting paddle or a docking tool. Evidence inside the canoe shows that it was made with a combination of two techniques: slow-burning coals were used to soften the log’s insides which were then scraped out with stone and shell tools.

The canoe and pole date to the Weeden Island II Period (700 A.D. – 1200 A.D.) of the Weeden Island Culture, a descendant of the Manasota Culture which first settled Florida’s central Gulf coast about 2,500 years ago. Most of what we know about the Weeden Island Culture comes from pottery discovered in burial mounds, village sites and midden piles. This is the only dugout canoe ever discovered from the culture and as such expands our understanding of a little-known people.

In order to remove the canoe, it was cut into 10-foot sections. The pieces were then placed in a tank of polyethylene glycol (PEG) so that the water could be gradually extracted and replaced with the waxy substance. PEG doesn’t dry out like water does, so it will keep the wood supple and free from cracking or shrinking.

“We never wanted the canoe to leave Pinellas County,” said Brent Weisman, a retired University of South Florida archaeology professor and head of the Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research and Education. “That was one of our goals. We didn’t want to send it to Tallahassee or Washington or somewhere else; we wanted it to always stay here. So we built the tank ourselves.”

The canoe stayed in its bath for three years and was allowed to dry for another year before it was ready for display. The four sections have now been reassembled and exhibited in a custom display case at the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.

Iron Age village, sacrifices found in Denmark bog

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

An excavation in Skødstrup, a suburb of Aarhus on the Jutland peninsula of central Denmark, has unearthed the remains of an entire Iron Age community dating to around the birth of Christ. Iron Age burials and sacrifices have been discovered before in the Skødstrup area. Just 500 feet away from the current excavation is a bog where sacrifices and offerings ranging from weapons to a baker’s dozen of dog remains have been found since digs began in the 19th century. Archaeologists were therefore optimistic that this excavation would reveal rich finds, but the depth and breadth of the discoveries surprised even them.

A previous excavation of the site found a burial ground. This season the team found the remains of a large Iron Age village with a cobblestone road in excellent condition and well-preserved floors of homes. In a low-lying area south of the village, archaeologists found human and animal bog sacrifices. The Skødstrup bogs were harvested for peat fuel by early Iron Age peoples. Their descendants a few hundreds of years later used the harvested spots for ritual purposes, placing the bodies of sacrificed humans and animals inside the peat cuts.

Archaeologists so far this season have unearthed the skeletal remains of eight dogs and one human. The dog skeletons were found next to three tethering stakes. The human bones were found heaped next to two stakes, one of them sharpened. The skeletal remains were not complete but they were sufficient to identify the individual as a young woman in her twenties when she died. Most of the skull is missing — the jaw was all that could be found of the head — which suggests it may have been deliberately separated from the body perhaps for ritual purposes.

The tethering stakes of are particular interest. Archaeologists believe they may reveal a previously unknown aspect of Iron Age sacrificial rituals.

“At Skødstrup, we have the whole spectrum of an Iron Age community: A well-structured village with an associated burial ground and sacrificial bogs. It gives us a unique insight into the life of Iron Age people in war and in peace, and not least a glimpse into their religious universe,” [excavation director Per] Mandrup said.

The remains of the woman have been transported to Moesgaard Museum for further study in laboratory conditions.

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