Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Rare Roman intaglio bracelet to go on display

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014


On July 26th, 2012, a metal detectorist found a Roman bracelet near Dalton, Cumbria, northwestern England. It was broken in two pieces: a twisted tube made out of spiralled silver wire and a hinged round bezel with a red gemstone intaglio of Jupiter. Dating to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., this bracelet is a very rare artifact, especially so for the Furness area because no Roman structures have ever been found there. Plenty of Roman coins have been, but not high-end jewelry like this piece. The artifact thus testifies to the wide range of Roman trade reaching the ends of the empire, or it may point to a settlement that hasn’t been unearthed yet.

The finder reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme liaison and the subsequent coroner’s inquest declare it official treasure trove. Since then, the bracelet has been at the British Museum where experts were studying it and assessing its market value so a local museum, in this case the Dock Museum in Furness, could acquire it. The price was modest compared to some of the major treasure finds — just £1,800 ($3,000) — but small local museums don’t have acquisition budgets so they had to raise the funds.

Thanks to a donation from the Furness Maritime Trust, the Dock Museum is now the proud owner of this beautiful and rare piece of jewelry. It will go on display on March 14th in the museum’s new archaeology gallery. There will be associated workshops at the end of the month that schools have been invited to, and on Saturday, April 12th, a free Roman-themed family fun day.

It’s only fair that such a handsome piece of jewelry would inspire all kinds of new exhibitions and events at the museum. I think the striking spiral wire design with filigree terminals is reminiscent of a torc while the intaglio is a Greco-Roman classic. That’s not to say this was a hybrid of British and Roman workmanship. The thick spiral-twisted wire band with elaborate terminals and an engraved gemstone set in hinged bezel center is a design that has been found far, far away from Britannia. A similar silver hinged bracelet was found in Slovenia. Gold examples have been found in Syria and Egypt. This was an import, and an expensive one at that.

From the curator’s report for the treasure inquest:

The distorted elliptical hoop comprises a fine and evenly-twisted, tightly-spiralled tube made from circular-sectioned silver wire. Quite heavy wear is visible on both sides of the hoop. What appears to be the central core, around which the wire was spiralled, is visible under magnification in those places where distortion has slightly ‘opened’ the twisted strands, but its composition is uncertain. Each terminal is enclosed in a tubular collar which is decorated with an applied central meander filigree wire flanked by a double-ring edge-moulding. [...]

The large circular bezel, a hollow box construction of silver sheet, has a plain back and sides. Its ornate upper face comprises an outer basal zone of herringbone pattern, formed from three concentric circles of twisted wire, and a central raised open dome with ribbed side and stepped, apparently rubbed-over, setting. The oval gem, seemingly of translucent orange-red colour, has dropped out of position to the base of the box-setting, presumably as a result of the deterioration and loss of an original organic packing. Engraved into its lightly convex surface is the image of a seated Jupiter, with wreath and full-length drapery, holding a sceptre in his left hand. In his extended right hand he holds a patera above a stylised flaming altar.

Whoever owned this bracelet had to be very wealthy. Dock Museum curator Sabine Skae speculates that it belonged to a wealthy Furness woman, native rather than Roman, who could afford the best and wanted to show it off.

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First human remains from ancient Marcavalle culture found in Cuzco

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Archaeologists from the Decentralized Department of Culture of Cuzco, Peru, have unearthed the first human remains ever discovered from the pre-Incan Marcavalle culture which flourished in the area around 1000 B.C., the first known human settlement in the Cuzco Valley. Digging on the grounds of the Juvenile Rehabilitation Center of Marcavalle 20 minutes south of downtown Cuzco by agreement with the Superior Court of Justice, excavators found three burial areas containing the skeletal remains of five people. Two adults were buried together in one grave along an east-west axis. Adjacent to them was the grave of an infant. Nearby two adolescents were buried with their lower legs bent and placed side by side.

Interred along with the human remains were artifacts characteristic of Marcavalle culture. The people were buried wearing bead necklaces around their necks and arms. Excavators also found decorative pottery in animal and human shapes. Iridescent paint was used on some of the pottery, a material typical of Marcavalle ceramic. There were a number of projectile points made out of stone and obsidian, charms and tools — mortars, chisels, awls, drills — made of stone and bone. Unworked bones of camelids, deer and guinea pigs butchered for food were unearthed in the funerary context as well.

Researchers found another first in another trench: a semicircular wall. The sandstone and clay mortar wall is the first architectural evidence ever discovered from the Marcavalle culture. It’s not clear what structure the wall was a part of, but archaeologists found ashes which may have been left behind from religious or cultural activity of some kind.

This is a find of major importance because it geometrically expands our understanding of Marcavalle culture. Very little is known about it. They were identified from artifacts — potsherds, stone, mainly obsidian, projectile points, worked bone and bones from stock animals — first found in 1953 in the town of Marcavalle, two and a half miles southeast of Cuzco. Geometric decoration on the pottery painted with a red slip over a painted cream-color background was the most common style found on Marcavalle potsherds, a style also found in the most recent excavation. From the little we do know, the Marcavalle peoples were primarily farmers who lived in relatively densely populated villages in the Cuzco Valley.

Ricardo Ruiz Caro, head of the Decentralized Department of Culture of Cuzco, emphasizes the significance of the find: “These are the first funerary contexts found intact in 50 years of studies and research on the Formative period that will allow us to reinterpret the process of cultural evolution in the Cuzco Valley.”

Excavations in the Juvenile Center will continue through this years. Researchers have to secure more than $350,000 to fund further archaeological explorations that may illuminate this obscure period in ancient Peruvian history. Meanwhile, all the artifacts are being conserved and recorded for later analysis from experts in a variety of relevant specialties.

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Egyptian in Roman army writes mournful letter home

Friday, March 7th, 2014

A letter written on papyrus 1800 years ago by an Egyptian soldier serving in the Roman army has just been fully deciphered by Rice University doctoral candidate Grant Adamson.

The papyrus is one of more than 30,000 discovered in the Egyptian city of Tebtunis 90 miles southwest of Cairo during an 1899-1900 archaeological expedition led by British papyrologists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt. They were the first to excavate Tebtunis and they hit papyrus paydirt almost immediately. The dig began December 3rd, 1899, and within a month they had already unearthed hundreds of papyri in the ancient town and in the main temple complex. In January of 1900, they found another two rich papyrology veins in the city necropolis. One was a group of more than fifty human mummies encased in cartonnage, a papier-mâché-like material that used recycled papyri. The other was a group of more than 1,000 mummified crocodiles, 31 of which were wrapped in recycled papyrus.

We know this because they unwrapped the mummies shortly after excavation just to get to the papyri, a conservation nightmare to modern sensibilities. For comparison, here are two mummified crocodiles unearthed by Grenfell and Hunt at Tebtunis. The first is still wrapped in its original reed, textile and painted cartonnage face mask. The second was unwrapped on site.


The papyri found in the temple complex were the most recent, written when Egypt was under Roman rule in the first three centuries of the first millennium. Almost all of them were written in Greek with a few written in Demotic. The temple was dedicated to the crocodile god Soknebtunis (a local the name for the god that translates to “Sobek, Lord of Tebtunis”) and the priests lived in houses in the temple complex. Many papyri were discovered in those priestly homes, a vast collection of documents ranging from tax receipts to apprenticeship contracts, petitions to minutes of priest meetings, loans to private correspondence.

Grenfell and Hunt published the Soknebtunis papyri in Volume II of their three-volume work The Tebtunis Papyri, but many of the translations were incomplete. For document 583, only a short summary was published. That letter is now in the papyrus collection of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, which is where Grant Adamson studied in seeking to finish the job Grenfell and Hunt started more than a century ago. He had the benefit of new technology to help him make sense of the faded and fragmented writing: infrared imaging which makes illegible text visible.

The letter was written by one Aurelius Polion, soldier of the legio II Adiutrix stationed in Pannonia Inferior, around present-day Hungary, in the third century A.D. and is forlorn in tone.

Addressed to his mother (a bread seller), sister and brother, part of it reads: “I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind,” it reads.

“I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you …” (Part of the letter hasn’t survived.)

Polion says he has written six letters to his family without response, suggesting some sort of family tensions.

“While away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger,” he writes. “I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother …”

We don’t know if that stinging rebuke reached its intended recipients, but it seems likely since we know it found its way to Egypt and to the temple of Soknebtunis. It seems Polion entrusted the letter to a former Roman soldier rather than the Roman military postal system. The verso of the letter gives hand delivery instructions to someone whose name may have been (the fragmentary papyrus makes it unclear) Acutius Leon.

For more information about the Tebtunis papyri, including translations of featured pieces and a searchable database of the papyrus collection, see the website of The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri.

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Whole egg votive found under Sardis floor

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the ruins of Sardis, onetime capital of Lydia, home of King Croesus whose control of gold deposits in the area made his name synonymous with enormous wealth, in western Turkey have unearthed two votive deposits buried under the floor of a Roman-era home. Both votives have the same ingredient list: a coin, a group of pointed metal nail or needle-like objects and an egg, all placed inside pottery vessels which were covered and buried. One was a jug found broken into pieces, its fragile egg smashed. The other was a bowl topped with an inverted bowl to act as lid and its egg was found intact except for a hole that was deliberately poked in its shell in antiquity probably to remove the contents so the egg wouldn’t rot and make the newly renovated home it was supposed to bless smell like sulfur.

The votive pottery dates to between 54 and 68 A.D. when Sardis was part of the Roman province of Asia. A few decades before then in 17 A.D. Sardis had been nearly leveled by a massive earthquake. Pliny the Elder called it “the greatest earthquake which has occurred in our memory.” Tacitus described the extent of the devastation in Annals II: 47:

In the same year, twelve important cities of Asia collapsed in an earthquake, the time being night, so that the havoc was the less foreseen and the more devastating. Even the usual resource in these catastrophes, a rush to open ground, was unavailing, as the fugitives were swallowed up in yawning chasms. Accounts are given of huge mountains sinking, of former plains seen heaved aloft, of fires flashing out amid the ruin. As the disaster fell heaviest on the Sardians, it brought them the largest measure of sympathy, the Caesar promising ten million sesterces, and remitting for five years their payments to the national and imperial exchequers.

So Sardis was rebuilt, thanks to a significant capital investment and tax breaks from the emperor Tiberius. The scars from the earthquake never did fade, however, and the city never regained its former splendor. The house in which the votives were found was built over the ruins of a previous structure that archaeologists believe was destroyed in the earthquake of 17 A.D.. It’s possible that the homeowners had that destruction in mind when they buried the votives under their new floor to protect it from any future such ravages.

They could also have been a simple purification ritual. Burying votives in a wall or under a floor was a relatively common practice in antiquity. The Lustratio ceremony, a Greco-Roman purification ritual, was used to bless and purify buildings after new construction or renovation. Eggs were used in the Lustratio ceremony. An egg was placed on the fire and if it cracked, it was a bad portent warning the owner of danger to the property. The Sardis home shows signs of having been renovated several times.

The coin found in the bowl along with the egg and pointy metal things may also provide a clue to the ritual purpose of the votives.

“The coin has a portrait of Nero on the front. The original reverse was hammered flat, and the image of a lion engraved in its place, which is very odd.” Expert numismatists have never seen anything like it. “The image of the lion is important because it is emblematic of the Lydian kings and of their native mother goddess Cybele,” [University of Wisconsin-Madison art history professor Nicholas] Cahill says.

There are references in the ancient sources connected Cybele and eggs. In Juvenal’s Satire V, the priests of Cybele (called “Galli” which also means roosters) are presented as effective against “black hobgoblins, and dangers from a broken egg.” That danger was sorcery, mainly. Pierced or broken eggs were an indication that they had been used in spell-casting.

Cybele isn’t the only deity with a possible votive egg connection in Sardis. In 1911, Princeton University archaeologists led by Howard Crosby Butler unearthed the temple of Artemis, long since buried by landslides. They found a number of vessels holding coins, eggs and pointy metal objects, but at the time there was little interest in such quotidian items and excavations were interrupted by World War I. When Butler returned in 1922, he found most of the artifacts had been destroyed or stolen. According to notes from the 1911 excavation, the votive eggs at the temple of Artemis were also deliberately perforated in antiquity.

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Another wall collapses in Pompeii

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Heavy rainfall has claimed new victims among the ruins of Pompeii: two more walls have come down.

Officials said the wall of a tomb about 1.7 metres high and 3.5 metres long collapsed in the necropolis of Porta Nocera in the early hours of Sunday.

That followed a smaller collapse on Saturday of part of an arch supporting the Temple of Venus. [...]

The Temple of Venus is in an area of the site which was already closed to visitors, while access to the necropolis has been closed following the collapse of the wall.

Heavy rains and continued neglect inflicted the coup de grace on a whole gladiator school and took down multiple walls in 2010. There much indignant harumphing about it, but not a lot of necessary maintenance to keep the deterioration at bay. In 2011, the European Union pledged $145 million to the conservation of Pompeii, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the then-Culture Minister, Giancarlo Galan, asserted that Pompeii would be a priority for his tenure.

Two years later, after a damning UNESCO report identified the extensive structural damage, vandalism and unqualified employees plaguing the ancient site, Italy launched the Great Pompeii rescue project, a plan to restore the entire site using the UNESCO report as an action plan and the EU’s $145 million in funding. Great Pompeii also has a goal of increasing visitor numbers by 300,000 a year by 2017, however, which seems counterproductive given the danger posed by crowds.

Pompeii attracted more than 2.3 million visitors in 2010 and on the busiest days it had 20,000. Sheer numbers, along with careless behaviour, are causing considerable damage: “Visitors in groups rub against the decorated walls, all too often with their rucksacks, or lean against them to take the best possible photographs,” says the report.

Meanwhile, a cooperative group of German and Italian institutions has launched the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation project (PSP) which plans to spend €10 million ($13,781,000) over ten years restoring major structures in need of attention and training the experts of tomorrow.

Now that there’s a new government in Rome, there’s also a new Culture Minister. Dario Franceschini was appointed last month by the new prime minister Matteo Renzi. In response to the latest collapse, he has called an emergency meeting of heritage officials on Tuesday. He will hear a report on the collapses and on the progress of the Great Pompeii project. The trick is going to be continuing oversight, since basically every since culture minister has done the same thing every time Pompeii exposed them by falling a little more apart.

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Confirmed: Tetrarchs looted from Constantinople

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Framing a corner of the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice are high relief sculptures of four Roman emperors known as the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs. Each pair is on a separate panel carved out of Imperial Porphyry, a dark purple-red color reserved in antiquity for emperors, in the early 4th century A.D. The figures are the two senior emperors (Augusti) and two junior emperors (Caesares) of the tetrarchy, a power-sharing system instituted by Emperor Diocletian in 293 that established one senior-junior pair to rule over the eastern empire (Oriens) and another over the western empire (Occidens). It only lasted two decades. By 313 civil war had chipped away at various usurpers and claimants leaving only Constantine I as Augustus Occidens and Licinius I as Augustus Oriens.

It’s not possible to identify the specific rulers depicted in the sculpture. Unlike the portraiture of earlier Roman emperors, the Tetrarchs are not realistic. There are no identifying characteristics or attributes, no naturalism, no individuality in the carving of garments or the men wearing them. Each pair shares an embrace, one bearded figure and one clean-shaved. It’s probable the bearded figures are Augusti and the Caesares are smooth-cheeked, but that’s symbolic of their relative ages and ranks, not a reflection of tonsorial reality. It’s also possible they were carved after the functional demise of the tetrarchy and are actually the three sons of Constantine (Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans) and his nephew Dalmatius, all of whom held the rank of Caesar.

What’s certain is they didn’t originate in Venice. They were looted, carried back to the city after the 1204 Sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Their exact provenance has long been debated. No contemporary chronicles mention the Tetrarchs explicitly. There are references in 14th century sources to marble and porphyry tablets plundered from Constantinople, but not to sculptures. There are also references to stonework being looted from Acre after Venice defeated Genoese forces there in 1258.

Some historians have posited that the 1258 date is accurate, but that it refers to the arrival of the Tetrarchs in Venice rather than plunder from the Genoese castle in Acre. By this theory, the Tetrarchs had remained in Constantinople during the short-lived Latin Empire when Crusaders ruled Byzantium between 1204 and the restoration of the Byzantine Empire under Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1261. When the situation started getting hairy for the Latin Empire, the Tetrarchs and other loot were sent to Venice and arrived contemporaneously around the time of the Genoese loss at Acre.

A popular legend dispenses with all this Crusader jazz. According to this version of events, the sculpture was once four thieves who were caught in the act trying to steal of the basilica’s treasure by Saint Mark himself. They were petrified for their crime affixed to the wall where the treasure is kept to guard it for eternity.

In 1965, a Turkish-German archaeological excavation underneath the Bodrum Mosque, originally a 10th c. church called the Myrelaion, in Istanbul recovered a porphyry fragment of a heel standing on a rectangular base. It seemed to fit the Tetrarchs whose fourth figure is missing his original feet and base. The Myrelaion was built over a 5th century rotunda and next to the Capitolium, a temple associated with the imperial cult built during Constantine’s reign. The Capitolium was also known as the Philadelphion, the “temple of brotherly love,” after the sons of Constantine.

This is the likely source of the Tetrarchs. Each pair would have adorned one of the massive porphyry columns on the portico of the main entrance. The building may even have become known as the Philadelphion because of the Tetrarchs. They were soon identified as Constantine’s sons, regardless of whether that was the original intent, and since they’re embracing, they were seen as representations of fraternal love. (This site has some neat reconstructions of the Philadelphion and the Tetrarchs on their columns.)

So the evidence has piled up, enough that for decades the Tetrarchs were widely assumed to have been plundered from Constantinople, but it has taken until now for an official confirmation.

Last year, the Procurator of St. Mark made an exact replica of all four Tetrarchs in Venice and the foot found in Istanbul. The fragments were combined in one piece, which fits perfectly together. Additional analyses were also made of the materials and the porphyry used for the making of the sculptures and the foot fragment. The results have confirmed that indeed the same material was used for both and therefore they are identical.

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World’s oldest cheese found on Chinese mummy

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Researchers have found the world’s oldest cheese around the neck a of Chinese mummy that was buried almost 4,000 years ago in the arid and salty Taklamakan Desert of the Tarim Basin, now in the Xinjiang region of northwest China. The Tarin mummies, first discovered in the 1930s, have already made a name for themselves because of their exceptional state of preservation and their European features. Now they can add wearing the oldest known cheese to their considerable mystique.

Chemist Andrej Shevchenko of Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics led the study which analyzed the yellow clumps adorning the neck and chest of the Beauty of Xiaohe, one of the earliest Tarin mummies at approximately 3,600 years old. The research team found proteins and fats characteristic of cheese, not other dairy products like milk or butter. These oldest cheese crumbles dates to approximately 1,615 B.C., an exceptional survival given how quickly dairy products decay.

The analysis also showed the mummies’ cheese was made by combining milk with a “starter,” a mix of bacteria and yeast. This technique is still used today to make kefir, a sour, slightly effervescent dairy beverage, and kefir cheese, similar to cottage cheese.

If the people of the cemetery did indeed rely on a kefir starter to make cheese, they were contradicting the conventional wisdom. Most cheese today is made not with a kefir starter but with rennet, a substance from the guts of a calf, lamb or kid that curdles milk. Cheese was supposedly invented by accident when humans began carrying milk in bags made of animal gut.

Making cheese with rennet requires the killing of a young animal, Shevchenko points out, and the kefir method does not. He argues that the ease and low cost of the kefir method would have helped drive the spread of herding throughout Asia from its origins in the Middle East. Even better, both kefir and kefir cheese are low in lactose, making them edible for the lactose-intolerant inhabitants of Asia.

We don’t know why the Tarin mummies were buried with cheese. A snack for the afterlife is one obvious possibility and they were certainly interred with elaborate grave goods and rituals. The Beauty of Xiaohe was coated head to toe in a milky white substance then wrapped in a be-tasseled white woolen cloak. Her elegant attire also includes a felt hat, a string skirt and fur-lined leather boots, all of them in like-new condition. On her chest was placed a wooden phallus and the cloak has three small pouches attached the right edge which contain fragments of the evergreen ephedra, a stimulant with thousands of years of use in Chinese herbal medicine. So sure, the cheese could have just been food for the voyage, or it could have had some entirely distinct ritual significance that we don’t understand.

There is far older evidence of cheesemaking — pottery cheese strainers found in Poland a few years ago date to 5,500 B.C. — so it’s not like it’s a surprise that people were making cheese 2,000 years after that, but these are the first ancient cheese pieces to have survived and been identified.

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Ancient mass grave found under Uffizi Gallery

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

Workers digging underneath the library of Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery to build a new elevator have unearthed the skeletal remains of more than 60 people dating back to late antiquity. Coins found in the graves range in date from the end of the 4th century A.D. to the beginning of the 5th, but of course we don’t know how old the coins were when they went underground with their owners. Radiocarbon dating, DNA testing, stable isotope analysis and osteological examination will help determine the time of death, where they were from, their diets, physical condition, social class and hopefully cause of death.

Over the five months of excavation, archaeologists have thus far seen no evidence of trauma to the bodies, so they were not killed by violent means. Their bones don’t show the signs of malnutrition either, so they didn’t die in a siege or famine. It seems they were felled by illness. Soil samples taken from around the remains indicate they were interred either simultaneously or within a very short timespan. That the bodies were buried to take up as little space as possible, mainly head to toe, and in uneven groupings with children placed in the small empty spaces is evidence that they were done in a hurry, likely as the result of an outbreak of contagious disease.

This area was just south of the Roman walls and prone to the alluvial floods of the Arno. The earliest remains found on the site were architectural and lapidary remains that appear to be construction debris dumped during the city expansion of the late 1st, early 2nd century A.D. The use of the spot as a dump ended by the 5th century when it began to be used as a necropolis. The choice of location — over a dump next to a river regularly in flood — confirms that the burials were an emergency, probably done in the summer while the river was at its lowest.

The timing could coincide with the Plague of Justinian, an epidemic that devastated the Byzantine Empire and what was left of the Western one during the 6th century A.D. Recent DNA studies of 6th century burials in Germany have found that the Yersinia pestis bacterium caused Justinian’s Plague like it would the Black Death eight centuries later.

The bones have been documented in situ and once fully excavated will be studied by Italian archaeologists in conjunction with experts from the University of Mainz who specialize in paleogenetics. Researchers hope to find pathogen DNA that will identify which deadly contagion claimed the lives of the people buried. Besides bubonic plague, possible candidates include cholera, dysentery and influenza.

Archaeologists hope the mass grave will fill in important blanks in the history of Florence in late antiquity. Up until now, very few human remains from this time have been found in various parts of the city. Finding dozens of skeletons in one place provides researchers with a solid sample size that can testify to the living conditions, health, nutrition, work of the Florentine population during a period that is poorly documented.

The five months of excavation were filmed in 3D to make a documentary that can be exhibited in the new addition that is expected to double the gallery space of the Uffizi. The skeletal remains themselves will be reburied somewhere in Florence once the studies are complete.

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Looter caught with Roman gold, silver hoard

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

An unnamed and unauthorized metal detectorist found a late Roman gold and silver hoard in the forest near Ruelzheim in Germany’s southwestern Rhineland-Palatinate state and dug it up so he could sell it on the black market. The authorities are not releasing specifics on how this scofflaw was discovered hoarding an ancient hoard except to note that “the looter rendered up [the pieces] himself – but only under pressure from investigators.” That means they caught him first and persuaded him to surrender the loot. The police have reason to believe he may have already succeeded in selling some of the pieces overseas. They will continue to investigate the case, looking for missing artifacts. No announcement was made regarding whether the looter would be charged with any crimes.

By German law, all excavations for archaeological material must be authorized in advance by the government heritage authority. Different states have differing laws on the particulars. Some allow finders to keep half the value of a find, if not the find itself. The Rhineland-Palatinate is not one of them. Searching for ancient artifacts with a metal detector is a misdemeanor office. Removing any artifacts discovered without reporting them rises to the level of fraud, and selling them can result in a charge of receiving stolen property.

Certainly if monetary value plays a part in determining the severity of a property crime in Germany as it does in the US, this looter is going to be in big trouble. The hoard includes three dozen beautifully detailed solid gold brooches shaped like leaves even more gold square pyramids that archaeologists believe all once ornamented a ceremonial tunic of an important Roman official. There’s also a silver dish with the remains of gilding still visible that was cut into pieces, possibly to be used as hacksilver, a solid silver bowl with gold accents inset with semi-precious stones, a crumpled and folded highly decorated silver plate that may have been a chest cover. A set of silver and gold statuettes and pieces of fittings are the remarkable survivors of what was once a curule seat, a commander’s portable folding chair.

The hoard dates to the early part of the fifth century A.D., a time when Germanic tribes banged away at each other and at the weakening Roman Empire. The Battle of Mainz took place in 406 A.D. not far from where this treasure was buried and it was a watershed event in the collapse of Roman control of Europe. Pressured by Huns in the east, migrating allied tribes including Alans, Suevi and Vandals assembled on the east bank of the Rhine. The Franks sent a raiding party across the river and succeeded in killing the Vandal king Godigisel, but the Alans turned the tide and defeated the Franks. The tribes then crossed the Rhine into Gaul on December 31st, 406, breaching what had been for centuries one of Rome’s strongest boundaries and pillaging Mainz, Rheims, Amiens and Strasbourg among many other Roman cities. It marked the end of Roman political and military control in northern Gaul and ushered in the Migration Period.

It’s no wonder why someone might have sought to bury his most precious treasures under these circumstances. The jewels from ceremonial clothing, the elaborate silver and gold folding chair and the exquisite silver tableware all point to them having been the belongings of an important magistrate or even royalty. These were the highly recognizable attributes of Roman political authority. They were buried near a former Roman road, whether by its original owner of by marauders who wanted to keep it safe from competing marauders, in a relatively shallow hole. It’s a testament to how dangerous the roads were that nobody made it back to reclaim so vast a treasure.

The age and nature of this hoard makes it a unique find in Germany, worth at least a million euro on the market and worth far more than that in historical value. It would be worth inestimably more if it had been excavated with respect for its context. Instead, the looter pulled whatever he could out of the ground, having no care whatsoever for archaeological integrity. According to state archaeologist Axel von Berg, the curule chair, for example, was “brutally torn out of the earth and destroyed.” The site itself was deliberately damaged. Boy would I love to see this thief prosecuted just for doing that.

Meanwhile, some people are getting excited over the prospect that this could be part of the legendary Nibelung hoard, the Rhine gold that features in Norse and German sagas and Richard Wagner’s opera cycle based upon them. The evidence for this is nonexistent, of course. The fifth century dating and the location somewhere in the vague area where the Rhine may have once flowed but doesn’t any longer is all it took for the legend buzz to start.

The treasure will soon go on display in Mainz and Speyer.

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3,600-year-old “feathered coffin” found in Luxor

Sunday, February 16th, 2014


A joint Spanish and Egyptian archaeological team excavating the area around the tomb of 18th Dynasty official Djehuty in the Dra Abul-Naga necropolis on Luxor’s west bank has unearthed a beautifully preserved wooden sarcophagus decorated in an elaborate feather design. This coffin type is known as a Rishi coffin, rishi meaning “feathers” or “wings” in Arabic. Anthropoid wooden coffins shaped like humans with linen-wrapped bodies painted in feathers first appeared in 13th Dynasty (1803 – ca. 1649 B.C.), but the oldest ones surviving date to the 17th Dynasty (ca 1600 – 1550 B.C.). Archaeologists believe this coffin dates to around 1600 B.C.

The range when feathered coffins were in regular use is known as the Second Intermediate Period (1800 -1550 B.C.), a turbulent time when the Canaanite Hyksos invaders ruled the eastern Nile Delta and the central monarchy was too weak to assert its control over local governments. According to the Spanish National Research Council’s (CSIC) excavation team leader José Manuel Galán, “This style of coffin is rare because it was in use for only a short period of time when Egypt was not unified. Thus, very few have been found in its original place and have been well documented in the archaeological context.”

This is the 13th season of excavations in the north section of Dra Abul-Naga where Djehuty, overseer of the treasury of Queen Hatshepsut (ca 1470 B.C.), was buried. This year’s work began in January. The team found three burial shafts, the first two of which had been broken into in antiquity. The third burial shaft was dug four meters (13 feet) into the bedrock ending in a chamber that was found still sealed with uneven mud bricks. When excavators removed the bricks, they discovered the rishi coffin inside.

The coffin is two meters (6’6″) long, 50 centimeters (20″) wide and 42 centimeters (16.5″) high. It was discovered intact with the paint colors still brilliant. The feathers drawn on the lid represent Maat, the Egyptian creation goddess of truth, order and law, who weighed the soul of the dead against an ostrich feather to determine whether they would reach the afterlife. The sarcophagus is painted to look like the body is being wrapped in paid of wings, like Maat, who is sometimes depicted with feathered arms, is holding the deceased from behind in a protective embrace.

A funerary inscription stretches from the chest of coffin lid to the foot. It prompts offerings to a man named Neb, presumably the inhabitant of the coffin. His full name and exact titles have yet to be deciphered, but he was a high ranking official of the 17th Dynasty. The mummy is still encased within the sarcophagus and appears to be in good condition.

This finding, along with others conducted in the same area, confirm that Dra Abu el-Naga was where were buried the members of the royal family and their courtiers Dynasty XVII, 1600 B.C. A little known period and at the same time, key to understanding the origin of the Egyptian empire, and the structure and functioning of the administration in the new capital city of Thebes.

For more about the Djehuty Project, including excavation diaries for each season and photo galleries (almost all of which is in Spanish), check out the website.

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