Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Early Christian church with unique frescoes found in Turkey

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the vast networks of rock-cut caves underneath the massive Byzantine-era castle in the town of Nevşehir, Central Anatolia Region, Turkey, have discovered an ancient church with unique frescoes depicting Biblical scenes not seen before in other churches of the period. Preliminary estimates suggest the church dates to the 5th century and the frescoes that have been revealed so far — on the ceiling and very tops of the walls — are still in brilliant color. There are scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Ascension, saints and Old Testament prophets including Moses and Elijah.

Nevşehir Mayor Hasan Ünver said the frescoes in the church showed the rise of Jesus the Christ into the sky and the killing of the bad souls.

“We know that such frescoes have so far never been seen in any other church,” Ünver said[....]

“It is reported that some of the frescoes here are unique. There are exciting depictions like fish falling from the hand of Jesus Christ, him rising up into the sky, and the bad souls being killed.”

That reference to bad souls being killed is not clear to me. It could be the Last Judgement, I suppose, but the souls of the wicked are damned, not killed. They wish they were killed! That’s kind of the whole point of Hell. I wonder if it’s a reference to the Harrowing of Hell derived from 1 Peter 3:19-20 that refers to Jesus preaching to evil souls/spirits (ie, Luciferian demons, rather than the souls of dead people) imprisoned in Limbo/Hell/Hades. It was a popular theme in Orthodox art. In fact, it first appears in Orthodox art significantly earlier than in Catholic art. The Western tradition appears to have only begun to borrow it from the Orthodox in the 8th century.

The underground city of Nevşehir was first unearthed in 2014 and while several other towns in the region, most famously Göreme, are known for their ancient rock-cut tunnel systems, the one in Nevşehir is believed to be the largest covering an area of ​​360,000 square meters with some tunnels more than four miles long. People have been beehiving under this place for an estimated 5,000 years. They cut out everything from water conduits to private dwellings to hermit cells and Christian churches. Nevşehir Castle Urban Transformation Project has been excavating the tunnels underneath the castle and 11 neighborhoods in the old town center. They’re excited at the prospect that the discovery of such early frescoes with unique iconography could make Nevşehir a site of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians.

Nevşehir was in what had once been the kingdom of Cappadocia, absorbed into the Roman Empire by Tiberius in 17 A.D. The tunnels were used as catacombs during the thornier years of Christian persecution, but the practice of cutting whole churches out of the rock grew out of the 4th century anchorite tradition. Cappadocia was an important center of Church thought in the 4th century, known particularly for the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great (bishop and saint), Gregory of Nyssa (bishop and saint) and Gregory of Nazianzus (archbishop and saint), who sought to introduce the Greek philosophical rigor to Christian theology. It was Saint Basil who encouraged the development of nascent anchorite communities where people who wished to withdraw from the world could dedicate the rest of their lives to penance and prayer. In the Nevşehir area, the anchorites made cells for themselves by digging them out of the soft rock. Over time the underground monastic communities carved themselves out increasingly large and elaborate churches.

Right now excavation has been halted because of excessive humidity which is deadly to ancient frescoed walls. The space must be dried gradually to ensure there is no paint loss or fading. From what has already been exposed, archaeologists can see that whole sections of the frescoed walls have collapsed inward, likely due to rain and snow. They hope the fragments may be recoverable in the fill, but won’t be back until the weather warms up this spring and all the moisture has evaporated. At that point they will continue removing the earth, hopefully discovering restorable pieces of the wall paintings or, in the best case scenario, sections of intact side walls as they dig down.

Once the church is fully excavated, we’ll know its dimensions — right now we can’t even tell how high it is — and get a glimpse of what may prove to be very significant early and transitional iconographic elements in the history of Byzantine art.

2,500-year-old footprints of people, dogs found in Arizona

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

I don’t quite have it in me yet to do a research-intensive post but I can’t stand to be out for three days in a row, especially since you have all been so incredibly solicitous of my health. Thank you so much for your wonderfully supportive comments, good wishes, wise advice and even recipes. :thanks:

Archaeologists excavating the site of a new highway to be built along Interstate 10 outside Tucson, Arizona, have discovered footprints left by a Native American farming community 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. The prints of men, women, children and dogs were left in the mud during a wet day. The mud dried into a solid crust and then a few days later a flash flood inundated the area with a layer of sandy silt that preserved the prints in perpetuity.

The prints are so extensive and clear that it’s possible to trace people’s movements during the course of the day. The imprints of irrigation ditches have also survived, and the business of the print groupings suggest the adults were working assiduously to manage the irrigation system during heavy rain or a rise in the nearby Santa Cruz River. They walked from one irrigation gate to another, building or flattening earthwork dams to direct the extra water to their maize plants. There are prints of an adult walking next to a child and marks left when the adult picked up the child before putting him or her back down. There are prints of adults walking to the irrigation canals while children and a dog follow them.

While far older footprints have been found in North America (ca. 13,000 years old), these are likely the oldest ever discovered north of Mexico in the Southwest, and they are the earliest evidence of formal farming in the US Southwest.

The ancient civilization that lived here represents what archaeologists call the early agricultural period, a time even before people in the region had developed ceramics.

“It’s a transition era from a lifestyle defined by hunter-gatherers to a settling down,” said Jerome Hesse, with SWCA Environmental Consultants.

Exactly how the people here lived their lives or organized their society is unknown, but Hesse said they likely lived at least part of the year at this and other sites in the region, cultivating crops in irrigated fields.

So far 4,300 square feet of the site have been exposed, and there’s likely more to be found, but time is not on archaeology’s side. The construction project will not be delayed or moved and it will destroy this unique discovery. In order to preserve what they can of this treasure, archaeologists have taken latex and epoxy molds of specific footprints, and the site is being documented virtually with high-resolution 3D models.

Here are a few of the models for you to explore. Keep an eye on the Southwest Archaeology blog for more to come.

Sunset Mesa Footprints
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

Sunset Mesa Footprint
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

Sunset Mesa Footprints
by Doug Gann
on Sketchfab

Harihara head and body reunited after 130 years

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

France has returned the head of a 7th century statue of the Hindu god Harihara to Cambodia more than 130 years after it was removed. The head was taken from the Phnom Da temple in Cambodia’s southern Takeo province in 1882 or 1883 by French linguist and archaeologist Étienne Aymonier who was the first to fully explore and document Khmer ruins in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in the late 19th century. Cambodia was a protectorate of France at that time, part of the colony of French Indochina, and Aymonier was the colonial administrator. From 1874 through 1882 or 1883, Aymonier surveyed ancient temples and monasteries in southern Cambodia and helped himself to a large number of artifacts which he brought back to France with him. Aymonier’s collection of Khmer treasures went on display at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. The next year they were joined to the Asian collection of the Guimet Museum in Paris.

Harihara is a syncretic deity that blends elements of Vishnu and Shiva, the deities of creation and destruction. The iconography of the statue head is typical of Harihara: the elaborate hairstyle of braids bound together in a multilayer bun on one side of the top of the head, a cylindrical mitre on the other side, a third eye on the forehead and a crescent moon in the middle of the hair.

While the head was in the museum in France, in 1913 French archaeologist Henri Parmentier found the headless body of a statue in Phnom Da. In 1944 the body was moved to the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Just over a decade later in 1955, Cambodian archaeology expert Pierre Dupont posited that the head in the Guimet and the body in the Phnom Penh museum belonged together.

Dupont’s hypothesis was recently proved correct when the restoration workshop of the National Museum made a mold of the upper body and sent it to France. It matched the head perfectly. The head and other artifacts collected by Aymonier now at the Guimet were legally exported, so there was no question of a lawsuit or court case. Aymonier had the permission of King Norodom to export the works to France where they would be exhibited to show the West the importance and beauty of Khmer art. The Guimet and the National Museum made a deal to exchange the head for the recently excavated pedestal of a 10th century that matches a statue in the Guimet collection. Both pieces are on permanent loan, so there’s no official change in legal ownership.

On January 21st, conservators reattached the head of Harihara to the body at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The ceremony was attended by 200 people, including government and museum officials, diplomats, foreign dignitaries.

“After it was separated 130 years ago, we are welcoming the reunification of the head and the torso of Harihara,” Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said at the ceremony. “According to our Khmer culture, the reunion is symbolic of prosperity.”

New technology finds York gladiators’ homelands

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

The latest and greatest DNA technology has revealed the origins of some of the 80 men buried in a Roman-era cemetery in York. The burials have intrigued and mystified archaeologists since they were first discovered under the garden of an 18th century mansion on Driffield Terrace in 2004. Of the 80 individuals, 48 of them, 60% of the total and 79% of the 61 skeletons with surviving crania and cervical vertebrae, had been decapitated from behind with a very sharp, very fine blade. Their heads were buried with them but not in anatomically correct or even consistent positions. Skulls were placed on the chest, between the legs and at their feet.

Decapitated remains have been found in Roman cemeteries before, but very few. One study tallied 98 decapitations making up 6% of the inhumation burials in cemeteries where decapitations were found. The York burials were so unique because of the unprecedented high proportion of decapitated individuals in the cemetery, four times higher than the proportion found in any other Romano-British cemetery. The second highest number of decapitations is 15 out of 94 burials (16%) unearthed from a Roman cemetery in Cassington, Oxfordshire.

Another unique feature of the Driffield Terrace burials is that they were all men. Decapitated individuals found in all the other Roman burial grounds had the usual demographic spread you’d expect of an attritional cemetery. There were men, women, young, old, adult, child. The York burials were also all under the age of 45 and taller than average. Five of them had other wounds inflicted by a blade besides the cuts to the neck, jaw, clavicle and scapula associated with decapitation. Two were stabbed in the abdomen; one was cut through the thigh muscles to the femur; two were parrying fractures to the forearm and hand, likely incurred trying to deflect a blow to the head. Sixteen individuals had perimortem blunt force trauma to the cranium. Evidence of healed trauma was rife, including cranial, facial, dental and metacarpal fractures that were likely incurred by violence. One skeleton’s pelvis showed signs of what may have been bite marks from a lion or bear.

Osteological evidence indicates they were trained to fight from a young age. Their right arms were consistently longer than their left, which means they’d been using weapons regularly since before they’d finished growing. Most them also showed signs of inadequate nutrition in childhood which they overcame to become healthy, strapping young men.

The single-sex grouping, young age, height and extensive evidence of violence indicated these were fighting men, but just what kind was unclear. The cemetery was southwest of the city walls of Roman Eboracum along the main road to Tadcaster just across the river from the legionary fortress. Legionaries had an age limit and height requirement. Gladiators or criminals sentenced to death were the other possibilities.

The placement of the cemetery atop a promontory on the main road makes it unlikely that they were criminals or outcasts. It’s too sweet a spot to leave it to executed criminals. The date of the burials — from the 2nd to the 4th century A.D. — was an important time for York. Roman emperor Septimius Severus actually lived in Eboracum off and on during the early 3rd century when it was the capital of the Britannia.

To determine the place of original of the individuals, a team from Trinity College Dublin used cutting-edge genomic analysis. DNA was extracted from the dense inner ear bones of seven of the Driffield Terrace burials and subjected to whole genome analysis.

The nearest modern descendants of the Roman British men sampled live not in Yorkshire, but in Wales. A man from a Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the village of Norton, Teesside, has genes more closely aligned to modern East Anglia and Dutch individuals and highlights the impact of later migrations upon the genetic makeup of the earlier Roman British inhabitants.

However, one of the decapitated Romans had a very different story, of Middle Eastern origin he grew up in the region of modern day Palestine, Jordan or Syria before migrating to this region and meeting his death in York.

This is the first genomic analysis of ancient Britons, but given the precision of the results it’s certainly not the last.

Rui Martiniano who undertook the analysis said: “This is the first refined genomic evidence for far-reaching ancient mobility and also the first snapshot of British genomes in the early centuries AD, indicating continuity with an Iron Age sample before the migrations of the Anglo-Saxon period.”

You can read the full genomic study in this month’s Nature Communications.

Excavation of mysterious Honduran site begins

Friday, January 15th, 2016

Archaeologists have begun to excavate an ancient site that may be the kernel of truth inside the legends of the lost White City in the tropical rainforest of the Misquitia region on the eastern Mosquito Coast of Honduras. The local Pech and Payas peoples have an oral tradition transmitted through the generations of a forbidden city with large buildings built from local white limestone. Spanish Bishop Cristobal de Pedraza wrote about the tale of the lost in a letter King Charles V of Spain in 1544. He said he’d seen a large city in a river valley while traveling through the jungle. His guides told him the nobles there ate on plates made of pure gold. For hundreds of years explorer searched for it, some even claimed to have found it, reporting fantastical finds of gold idols and carved white stones.

Over time the mysterious city became known as the White City after those stones. It was also dubbed “The Lost City of the Monkey God” by explorer Theodore Morde who announced to great fanfare in 1940 that he had discovered the city where ancient Mesoamericans worshiped a giant ape idol. He didn’t reveal where he’d found it to keep it safe from looters. He planned to return the next year, but he never did and he never revealed the location.

In 2012 an aerial lidar survey over the jungle spotted the remains of three urban centers that scientists unromantically dubbed T1, T2 and T3. In February of 2015 archaeologists did a preliminary exploration of T1 and counted an extraordinary 51 artifacts partially buried but still visible on the surface on the jungle floor. The President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, quickly moved to protect the site from looters, deploying armed troops to guard it.

Archaeologists from the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), Colorado State University and National Geographic recently returned to T1 and have already unearthed more than 60 objects, including ceramic vessels decorated with figures of jaguars, lizards, macaws and vultures. The most glamorous find so far is a stone chair or throne carved with the figure of a jaguar. Colorado State University researcher Chris Fisher believes one of the vessels with the head of a bird dates to between 1,000 and 1,500 A.D.

They have also found evidence of a pyramid and adobe structures that suggest the site was used for religious ceremonies. According to IHAH director Virgilio Paredes, the site does not appear to be Maya, the dominant culture in the region, nor is it Aztec or any other known culture.

President Hernández was present at the site on Tuesday, January 12th, to announce the finds. He has dubbed the three urban centers collectively “Kaha Kamasa” which means White City in the Misquito language, and T1 “Jaguar City” after the jaguar artifacts. T1 is the smallest of the three cities and archaeologists have barely scratched the surface. They believe the sites together could be four times larger than Mayan site of Copan, a major regional capital in western Honduras.

Round houses found at Bronze Age Must Farm site

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

The Must Farm Quarry in the Cambridgeshire fens near Peterborough, southeast England, is the site of the largest collection of Bronze Age artifacts ever discovered in Britain. It was first found in 1999 by a local archaeologist who saw the tops of timber posts bristling at the edge of the working quarry. Small archaeological investigations followed in 2004 and 2006, with the latter unearthing pottery of exceptional quantity and variety, plant fiber textiles, woven willow baskets used as fish weirs, glass beads, tools, weapons, even a bowl of food — later found to be nettle soup — with a spoon still standing inside it. A 2011 excavation discovered an unheard of eight perfectly intact log boats.

The reason so many organic remains survived for more than 3,000 years at Must Farm is that soggiest of archaeological jackpots: waterlogged soil. When the settlement was built on the ancient Nene River channel in about 1,300 B.C., the land that would become the Flag Fen basin was still mostly dry with the river as the major thoroughfare. Water levels started to rise, flooding the low-lying areas and forcing the inhabitants to adapt their architecture and lifestyles accordingly. Things lost to the rising waters were embraced by the mud and covered by deposits of silt and clay that protected them from oxygen and microorganisms that cause organic materials to decay.

In the early stages of settlement, large square cut oak piles were driven into the river channel to support a wooden platform. Part of the structure collapsed, pinning a fish weir beneath it for our edification. Water flooded the structure. Between 1,000 and 800 B.C., new piles were sunk and a wooden palisade was added around the platform to impede the flow of water. Sometime between 920 and 800 B.C., the site was struck again, this time not by water but fire. The structure burned and dropped into the river. The water doused the flames; the charred organic material sank to the bottom of the stream. The combination of fire carbonizing organic remains, water stopping the fire before it consumed all and mud encasing everything was a perfect storm to preserve an entire Bronze Age household for 3,000 years.

Last September, a new excavation funded by Historic England and Forterra, the company that owns the clay quarry, set out to explore the timber platform. The Cambridge University Archaeological Unit has been digging for three months. They have five more months to go and they’ve already made extraordinary finds, most significantly evidence of collapsed round houses on stilts, at least five of them. They are the best preserved Bronze Age homes ever discovered in Britain by far. Usually all archaeologists have to go on is postholes.

[Site director Mark] Knight said possible reasons for the fire included a cooking accident, deliberate destruction and abandonment of the site, or even enemy attack. But whatever happened, the people abandoned their possessions and left precipitously: “This is a world full of swords and spears – it is not entirely a friendly place.

“We’re used to finding a bit of pottery and trying to reconstruct a civilisation from that,” he said. “Here we’ve got the lot. We should be able to find out what they wore, what they ate and how they cooked it, the table they ate off and the chairs they sat on.

“These people were rich, they wanted for absolutely nothing. The site is so rich in material goods we have to look now at other bronze age sites where very little was found, and ask if they were once equally rich but have been stripped.”

This wealth is confirmed by animal remains which are overwhelmingly land animals like sheep, pigs and cows rather than the plentiful fish, eels and mussels the inhabitants were living on top of. The articulated spine of a cow was found in one of the houses, likely a carcass that was being butchered before the fire stopped time. At this point the water levels in the settlement and environs were high, so the livestock can only have been pastured on land a third of a mile away.

Archaeologists also found the first human remains a few weeks ago. So far only a skull has been excavated; archaeologists don’t know if there’s a skeleton yet to be dug up — one of the residents of the home caught in the fire, perhaps — or if the skull was a standalone item like a war trophy or amulet or devotional object.

The timber platform excavation has gotten a lot of press in the past few days, very deservedly so, but the news stories are cursory at best and they also weirdly treat the Must Farm settlement as if it’s an entirely new discovery instead of the latest phase of years of excavations. If you crave detail and accuracy, you can follow the progress of the dig on the Must Farm’s exceptional site diary and Facebook page of wonders. The team does a phenomenal job of keeping the public updated, explaining the finds, their archaeological significance, the excavation process and sharing great photographs.

Iron Age settlement unearthed in Norway

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

A unique opportunity to excavate an undeveloped field on Norway’s Ørland peninsula has revealed the remains of a large and wealthy Iron Age settlement. The site is adjacent to Norway’s Main Air Station which is expanding to make room for 52 new F-35 fighter jets the government recently purchased. By Norwegian law, the property must be surveyed by archaeologists before construction begins, and because this site is so extensive (91,000 meters squared or more than 22 acres), the survey is a major project with more than 20 staff working for 40 weeks at a cost of 41 million Norwegian Krone ($4,700,000), not counting the additional costs for room and board and large excavators.

The excavators are necessary to strip a very thin layer of topsoil which has been churned up by farming. The land has been farmed for centuries, going at least as far back 1,500 years ago when it was right on the bay. Now it’s a mile inland. Its former position on the coast made it an important location for Iron Age Norwegians.

“This was a very strategic place,” says Ingrid Ystgaard, project manager at the Department of Archaeology and Cultural History at NTNU University Museum. “It was a sheltered area along the Norwegian coastal route from southern Norway to the northern coasts. And it was at the mouth of Trondheim Fjord, which was a vital link to Sweden and the inner regions of mid-Norway.”

Excavations have already confirmed that the people who lived there were prosperous, as testified to by the quality of their garbage. Archaeologists were delighted to find middens — ancient garbage pits — on the site, because they rarely survive so long in the acidic soil of Norway. Thanks to its coastal history, the site’s soil is composed of alkaline ground-up seashells which has allowed delicate organic remains like animal and fish bones to survive to this day.

“Nothing like this has been examined anywhere in Norway before,” Ystgaard said.

There are enough bones to figure out what kinds of animals they came from, and how the actual animal varieties relate to today’s wild and domesticated animals, she said. The archaeologists have also found fish remains, from both salmon and cod, and the bones from seabirds, too.

These finds will give archaeologists a unique glimpse into the daily lives and diets of the Iron Age residents. Other artifacts found in the middens include a blue glass bead, several amber beads and a shard from a green drinking beaker that was imported from the Rhine Valley. These are expensive pieces, a testament to the wealth of a settlement that could afford to trade for such high-end goods.

The precision work of the excavators has peeled back the top layers of soil a centimeter at a time revealing discolorations and holes in the soil that are basically a blueprint of the structures in the settlement.

So far, these marks in the soil show that there were three buildings arranged in the shape of a U. The two longhouses that were parallel to each other measured 40 metres and 30 metres and were connected by a smaller building.

The 40-metre longhouse contained several fire pits, at least one of which was clearly used for cooking. Other fire pits may have provided light for handwork, or for keeping the longhouse warm.

Ystgaard believes there are probably more archaeological remains outside the 22 acres available to them to survey, perhaps a burial ground and harbour with the remains of boat houses, but they have more than enough meaty material to sink their teeth into on the airbase site. The opportunity to explore how the Iron Age site was laid out — where the houses were, where the fireplaces were, where the garbage pits were — is precious and rare and they intend to take full advantage of it.

Five homes, one laundry reopened at Pompeii

Saturday, December 26th, 2015

Five dwellings and one laundry facility at the ancient site of Pompeii have been reopened to the public after an extensive program of restoration: the House of the Cryptoporticus, the House of Paquius Proculus, the House of Sacerdos Amandus, the House of Fabius Amandio, the House of the Ephebus and the Fullonica (laundry) of Stephanus. The restorations were part of the EU-funded Great Pompeii Project, created to address the precipitous decline of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which focuses on repairing the most significant and at-risk structures. Work was taking so long that in October the EU threatened to pull funding if they didn’t get cracking, which is why the announcement that these six major restorations have been completed was made with much fanfare two months later.

The House of the Cryptoporticus is a lavishly decorated building complete with a luxurious four-room bath complex. In its heyday it was part of one of the largest homes in Pompeii which was divided in two around 20 years before the apocalypse. Eighteen women and children fled to what they hoped was safety in the House of the Cryptoporticus during the 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius. Unfortunately there was no such thing as safety in Pompeii that day and they all fell victim to the volcano’s wrath. It was also severely damaged during Allied bombing in 1943, particularly the peristyle (quadrangular garden).

The frescoed walls and mosaic floors of the cryptoporticus (exterior covered passageway), the bathing rooms, the summer triclinium (dining room) and the oecus (main hall or salon) have been restored. A fresco in the peristyle that managed to survive World War II in relatively decent condition has been returned to its former splendor. It’s a religious shrine, a lararium, with a portrait of Hermes in a niche to the left where offerings would be left. A large looping snake dominates the wall. It is surrounded by green boughs. A beautiful peacock and a small altar with a snake wound around it complete the picture.

The House of Paquius Proculus is known for its electoral graffiti, one of which gives the house its name. It’s not a large home, but it has some of the most beautiful mosaic floors in the city. Black-and-white and color mosaics adorn the floor of the atrium with scenes of animals and geometric borders. A black dog chained to a door bares its teeth on the floor of the entryway to dissuade any who would step foot on him with malicious intent. The triclinium has lost most of its mosaic floor, but in the center is an exceptional survivor: a Nilotic panel of pygmies fishing, one of whom falls into the water where hippopotami and snapping crocodiles await him eagerly.

The House of Sacerdos Amandus has a spectacular triclinium with floor to ceiling frescoes in the third style depicting the adventures of mythological heroes Hercules, Perseus, Odysseus, Daedalus and Icarus.

The House of Fabius Amandus is a modest structure, a typical example of a middle class Roman home. That’s significant in and of itself, but it’s also decorated with fourth style red panels on a yellow field with architectural features and with lovely mosaic floors.

The House of the Ephebus, named after the bronze statue of a youth that was once part of a fountain in the sumptuous structure. It was the home of wealthy merchants and it shows. It’s actually three houses joined into one, and is replete with high quality mosaic and fresco decorations of floors and walls. Restorers reconstructed the reclining couches of the triclinium. The summer triclinium in the garden is decorated with erotic frescoes of Egyptian theme and surrounded by columns.

The Fullonica of Stephanus was excavated from 1912 to 1914 and is a fascinating composite of private and commercial, a patrician house that was fully restructured and adapted to use as a laundry. A room west of the vestibule is decorated in brilliantly colored fourth style frescoes. Large panels of bright red with decorative borders are topped by architectural features with garlands and birds on a white background. Archaeologists believe this was the main office of the fullonica where people checked their garments in and out.

The impluvium (the sunken pool meant to catch rain water from the open roof) in the atrium was converted into a wash tub with the addition of walls. This was likely the delicate cycle of antiquity since the tougher, dirtier, badly stained fabrics were stomped on by laundry employees in larger tubs out back. There are three large square tubs in the main laundry facility and five oval tubs. Clothes were soaked in a mixture of water and unrine. Urine with its precious ammonia was a key element in ancient cleaning. It was collected from animals and humans, harvested from public bathrooms.

After the fabrics soaked for a while, they were trampled by the laundry workers. Then the cloth was treated with fuller’s earth — a type of clay that served as a fabric softener — and rinsed very, very thoroughly. Garments were laid out to dry on the roof or outside the entrance before getting ironed in the fullonica’s man-sized press.

Visitors to the restored fullonica will see a demonstration of how fabrics were treated in ancient Roman laundry facilities. Special tours covering all six of the newly reopened homes will be offered from now until January 10th.

Otzi has the world’s oldest known tattoos

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Otzi the Iceman, the exceptionally well-preserved 5,300-year-old mummy discovered by hikers in the Otzal Alps on September 19th, 1991, is officially the world’s oldest known tattooed person. You might have assumed that to be the case considering he died around 3,250 B.C., but there was another candidate for the title: a South America mummy of the Chinchorro culture believed to have died around 4,000 B.C. who has a line of dots on his upper lip forming a pointillist mustache.

The Chinchorro people lived along the Pacific coast of what is today Chile and south Peru between 7,000 and 1,100 B.C. Chinchorro mummies, both natural and deliberate, have been found from early in the date range. They are the oldest known human mummies but only one of them is known to have a tattoo. The mummy with the mustache tattoo was discovered in the bluffs of El Morro overlooking the city of Arica, Chile, in 1983. It’s a male who was around 35–40 years old when he died. Radiocarbon testing of a sample of lung tissue in the 1980s returned a date of 3,830 years BP (before the present).

So according to the radiocarbon dating, Otzi is significantly older than the Chinchorro mummy, but a simple mistake in the scholarship misread 3,830 BP as 3,830 B.C. and the error was unwittingly picked up and repeated by subsequent researchers. The new erroneous date was then transposed to 5,780 BP, which in turn was mistakenly read as 5,780 B.C. in a later study. And thus a simple reading error was compounded over 20 years of scholarship to add 4,000 years to the Chinchorro mummy’s age.

Now that this error has been spotted and corrected, Otzi’s tattoos are confirmed to be the oldest known. As an aside, the Princess of Ukok who is famed for her intricate, highly artistic tattoos of fantastical animals and dates to 400–200 B.C., is 13th (or so, there are three other Pazyryk culture tattooed mummies from the same date range) on the list of oldest known tattoos.

Otzi’s tats are nothing like the Princess of Ukok’s. They are simple in design — groupings of parallel lines and crosses — and were not decorative. There are 61 lines and crosses tattooed on his body, the last of them discovered recently almost 25 years after the Iceman’s body was found. The tattoo was hidden in the darkened skin of his ribcage and was only identified thanks to a new study that used multispectral photographic imaging techniques to scan his entire body in a range of light from IR to UV.

Most of the tattoos are in areas that radiological studies confirm must have been painful due to degeneration and chronic illness, which indicates they had a therapeutic purpose rather than a symbolic one. The ribcage tattoo isn’t on a worn joint, his legs or his spine like the others, but Otzi suffered from several afflictions that could cause chest pain — gallbladder stones, whipworms, atherosclerosis — so it too could have been intended to alleviate pain.

The tattoos were made by cutting fine lines into the epidermis and then rubbing charcoal dust into the cuts. Since almost all of the tattoos are on acupuncture points, researchers believe the cutting may have been an early form of acupuncture which first appears on the historical and archaeological record in China around 100 B.C. but documenting what was already an established practice by then.

Although Ötzi is the oldest tattooed human, the paper’s authors conclude this will likely change: Ötzi’s tattoos are indicative of social and/or therapeutic practices that predate him, and future archaeological finds and new techniques should someday lead to even older evidence of tattooed mummies.

“Apart from the historical implications of our paper, we shouldn’t forget the cultural roles tattoos have played over millennia,” [study co-author Lars] Krutak says. “Cosmetic tattoos — like those of the Chinchorro mummy — and therapeutic tattoos — like those of the Iceman — have been around for a very long time. This demonstrates to me that the desire to adorn and heal the body with tattoo is a very ancient part of our human past and culture.”

Tomb of Tutankhamun’s wet nurse, maybe sister, opens

Monday, December 21st, 2015

The tomb of Pharoah Tutankhamun’s wet nurse Maia was opened to journalists Sunday for the first time since it was discovered in 1996. It will be opened to the public next month. The rock-cut tomb is in the necropolis of Saqqara, about 13 miles south of Cairo, and was discovered by French archaeologist Alain Zivie in 1996.

The tomb consists of the cult chambers with three decorated rooms and the underground, mostly undecorated, burial chambers. The first room of the cult chapel of her tomb is dedicated to the life of Maia.

She was the wet nurse of the king, educator of the god’s body and the great one of the hareem. Nothing is known about her parents. Tutankhamun is depicted on one of the tomb’s reliefs featuring the boy king sitting on Maia’s lap and the king is mentioned several times in the tomb’s inscriptions.

There is also a badly damaged scene showing Maia in front of the king. The second room is dedicated to the burial rites associated with Maia. Maia is shown in front of offering bearers. She is depicted as a mummy in relation to the opening of the mouth ritual and she is standing before the underworld god Osiris.

This large and elaborately decorated tomb could be an indication that Maia was not just an important figure because she nourished the young king, but because she herself was a member of the royal family. Recently an ostracon was found in the tomb that titles Maia “Mistress of Women,” a significantly higher title than wet nurse, even when the nursee is a future pharaoh. Zivie believes the depictions of Maia on the reliefs share “the same chin, the eyes, the family traits” of Tutankhamun. The tomb of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s father, in Tel el-Amarna has a wall carving showing the burial of Maketaten, second daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, which is attended by a woman breast-feeding a baby. She is identified as Meritaten, the eldest daughter of Akhenaten, and the baby’s she’s feeding may be Tutankhamun. If true, that would make Tutankhamun’s wet-nurse his sister or half-sister.

The necropolis was extensively reused starting in the 7th century B.C. as a cemetery for mummified animals. Between the 30th Dynasty (380-343 B.C.) and the Roman period, Saqqara was a major center of animal cult worship and networks of galleries were carved out of the rock of the plateau to house the mummified remains of huge numbers of cats, dogs, bulls, ibises, baboons and more. In 2011, archaeologists discovered an incredible eight million animal mummies, mostly dogs but some cats and mongooses as well, in a catacomb near the temple of Anubis just to the east of the Bubasteion.

The area where Maia’s tomb was found is known as the Bubasteion, identified in Papyrus documents from the Late Period as the sanctuary of the cat goddess Bastet. Unlike the massive dog catacomb which was dug in the Late Period, the Bubasteion recycled the New Kingdom rock-cut tombs. Alain Zivie, then part of the French Archaeological Mission of Saqqara (FAMS), now director and founder of the French Archaeological Mission of the Bubasteion (MAFB) which has been excavating the necropolis since 1986, was the first to recognize in 1976 that the rock-cut tombs were originally created not for animals, but for important courtiers and high-ranking officials of 18th and 19th Dynasty Egypt.

The MAFB team has cleared more than a dozen tombs that were filled with debris and sand and whose original walls were obscured by Ptolemaic-era walls and pillars erected to support the rock ceilings which by then were in danger of imminent collapse. The new walls and pillars added in the conversion of the tombs to cat mummy catacombs helped preserve the original wall decorations — reliefs and paintings — and even hid some of the original burial gifts behind them. Maia’s tomb was full to the ceiling with sand, rubble and Ptolemaic modifications, which is why it has taken close to 20 years to fully excavate, clean and shore up the structure to make it safe for visitors.

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