Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Unique early 5th c. hoard found in Limburg

Monday, May 5th, 2014

A unique hoard buried in the early 5th century in a field in modern-day Echt, in the Netherlands’ southern Limburg province, has been excavated by archaeologists from VU University Amsterdam. The first glimmers of it appeared in 1990, when a farmer working his field found two gold coins. He inadvertently dropped one of them and although he searched frantically, he couldn’t find it again. Twenty-four years later in early 2014, the farmer and his nephew returned to the find site armed with a metal detector. They discovered five more gold coins and alerted the authorities.

University archaeologists excavated the rest of the hoard, getting a rare opportunity to examine the full archaeological context of a late Roman gold treasure. In fact, this is the first hoard from this period of Netherlands history to be thoroughly documented by archaeologists. The hoard is composed of one gold ring, one silver ingot, nine fragments cut from at least three large silverware plates and 12 gold coins, the most recent of which date to the reign of Emperor Constantine III (407-411 A.D.). They are in mint condition, which suggests the hoard was buried soon after 411 since the coins never had the time to get worn by circulation.

The pieces of silver tableware are what is known as hacksilver, artifacts made of precious metals that were cut up to be used as currency. One edge fragment testifies to what high level tableware it came from. It has a beaded rim and is engraved with a gilded horse and rider. The rider holds aloft a spear and the horse appears to be rearing over a lion, so archaeologists believe it was part of a larger hunting scene. Extrapolating from the curve of the outer edge of the fragment, the dish it came from would have been around 28 inches in diameter and weighed nearly five pounds. This kind of tableware was often used as diplomatic gifts to client chieftains or local dignitaries with whom Rome wished to curry favor, see the Traprain Law Hoard from East Lothian, Scotland for a famous example.

This is the first treasure found in the Netherlands to have both gold coins and hacksilver. The latter testifies to the political and economic upheaval of the time when the hoard was buried. The reason Rome was sending out elaborately decorated, expensive tableware to the far reaches of the empire was to buy protection of the borders. A Germanic war leader would get paid in a gilded silver plate more than two feet wide, then he would cut it up for its silver value and either keep it or distribute among his soldiers just like they would any other currency.

The date of this hoard was a particularly dangerous time in the area. Many historians point to the year 406, the year of the Battle of Mainz, as the final nail in the coffin of Roman control of the Rhineland. Germanic tribes, among them the Alans, Suevi and Vandals, defeated the Franks and crossed the border of the Rhine into Gaul. Constantine III may not have been able to keep the migrating tribes out of Roman territory, but he did make some effort. Historian at the time record him distributing gold to Germanic chieftains so they would defend the Rhine border in absence of army regulars. A study of gold finds in the Netherlands support the contention, as there is a remarkable concentration of gold from the reign of Constantine III.

The owner of the Echt hoard may have been the recipient of one of these pay-offs. Constatine III was defeated in battle and executed by his successor, Constantius, in 411. In the subsequent crisis, the hoard owner may have felt the need to bury the shiny new coins and hacked up fancy silverware the former emperor had given him. He seems to have unloaded it on the gods instead.
 
Thanks to the in-context excavation, we know that the shallow pit in which the treasure was buried is the only place in the area where late Roman artifacts have been found. Other archaeological material has been found in neighboring fields, but not Roman pieces from the early 5th century. This indicates there was no settlement or human habitation of the area during that period. Instead, it seems the treasure was deliberately buried in this out-of-the way spot, a marshy, uninhabited lowland perfectly suited for a ritual burial. Had the hoard been buried with the intent of retrieval, it would have been found near a settlement some place where it could rediscovered with relative ease.

The hoard is now on display in the From Neanderthal to City Dwellers gallery of the Limburgs Museum in Venlo.

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Help catalog British Museum’s Bronze Age artifacts

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Okay, I promise I’m not actively working to ensure that none of you ever leave your homes again. After all, there are always laptops, coffee shops with free wifi and libraries. It’s just that I can’t get enough of really fiddly detail work that helps bring hoary old museum collections into the Internet era.

In this case the collection is the British Museum’s hoards of Bronze Age metal objects and thousands of index cards documenting other pre-historic metal objects. In collaboration with University College London, the museum has created a crowdsourcing platform that gives history nerds with OCD and time on their hands the chance to digitize the objects and records.

This record contains over 30,000 Bronze Age tools and weapons that were discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries, and complements the current Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database of metal object finds.

The catalogue contains index cards detailing object find spots and types, alongside detail line drawings and a wide range of further information about the object’s context of discovery. The catalogue itself also has a long and special history. It was a major archaeological initiative first founded in 1913 and then moved to the British Museum in the 1920s. For over 70 years, it represented the highest standards of Bronze Age artefact studies.

“This information has long been known to be an extremely important untapped resource,” says curator Wilkin, “Metal finds are not only crucial forms of evidence for dating Britain’s prehistoric past, but also tell us a great deal about prehistoric society and economy. Once we have digitised the thousands of objects in this catalogue, they can be incorporated into the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) website. The result will be the largest national database of prehistoric metal finds anywhere in the world and a near-comprehensive view of what we currently know about such finds in the UK. This will allow rethinking of almost everything we currently know about the use of metal in Bronze Age Britain, giving us a far more comprehensive view of our prehistoric past.”

Here’s the crowdsourcing website where the magic happens. They’ve already done the hard work of scanning all these records, but to make them searchable and categorizable in an online database, the handwritten information needs to be entered into standard fields. Character recognition is still fairly unreliable which is why our eyeballs and fingers are necessary to make this great project come together. I’ve done a handful of cards and found them eminently readable. There are no doctor’s scribbles or chickenscratch. The only part that can be a little challenging is when the fields on the index cards don’t match the database fields, and that’s a minority of the records.

If data entry sounds a little dry an occupation for your free time, the project has a another goal of creating 3D models of Bronze Age artifacts in the British Museum. All you have to do to contribute to this goal is draw an outline around an artifact in a scanned photograph. It’s like the lasso tool in Photoshop. You click around the edge of the object every time the angle changes creating a polygonal outline. If the shape is odd and you feel the need to make multiple overlapping polygons, that works too. They don’t want any background pixels surrounding the artifact — they have dozens of pictures of each object to create the 3D model, so any slender losses along one edge will be recovered from a different view — so be sure to click along the inside edge rather than the outside.

You can register on the website if you want your work credited to a single account and if you’d like to seek help/fellowship on the community forum, but you don’t have to register to help out. Just click on an application and dive right in. A window will pop up with instructions. Once you get into a record, there are further tips in the database fields and on the photographs to help you out as you go along.

I found it meditative and genuinely enjoyable. There are some beautiful drawings of the artifacts on the index cards, and it’s amazing to see the remote areas where these artifacts have been found. Out of the five I did, three of them were from outside of the UK (two from France, one from Hungary). Every card and picture is a micro-lesson in the Bronze Age archaeological record.

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Contract to fix 3rd c. wrestling match found

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

The vast collection of papyrus fragments unearthed at the ancient site of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, the late 19th, early 20th century continues to bear sweet fruit. King’s College London Classics professor Dominic Rathbone has translated one of the Oxyrhynchus texts and found it’s the only ancient match-fixing contract ever discovered. Written in 267 A.D. in the ancient city of Antinopolis, about 55 miles south of Oxyrhynchus following the west bank of the Nile, the contract stipulates the outcome of the final match of the boys’ wrestling division of the 138th Great Antinoeia games.

The boys’ division was for teenagers, so the contract is between the father of finalist Nicantinous and the trainers of the other finalist, Demetrius.

The contract stipulates that Demetrius “when competing in the competition for the boy [wrestlers], to fall three times and yield,” and in return would receive “three thousand eight hundred drachmas of silver of old coinage” [....]

The contract includes a clause that Demetrius is still to be paid if the judges realize the match is fixed and refuse to reward Nicantinous the win. If “the crown is reserved as sacred, (we) are not to institute proceedings against him about these things,” the contract reads. It also says that if Demetrius reneges on the deal, and wins the match anyway, then “you are of necessity to pay as penalty to my [same] son on account of wrongdoing three talents of silver of old coinage without any delay or inventive argument.”

It’s not clear what proceedings they could actually initiate given that match-fixing wasn’t exactly legal, so if they were busted and Nicantinous’ father refused to pay Demetrius’ people the agreed-upon sum, they would hardly be in a position to challenge the reneging through any kind of official channels. Nor does the penalty against Demetrius have much in the way of teeth. Even if Demetrius didn’t take the dive he had agreed to take, it’s not like Nicantinous’ father could take him to court to enforce the three-talent penalty. In fact, given that it’s in an extra-legal penumbra, why bother to have a written contract to fix a fight at all?

It’s no mystery why fixing the match was advantageous to both sides. Only the winners of ancient game events would win a purse. There was no prize for second place. If the parties are evenly matched and neither of them confident of a positive outcome, why not ensure you at least get something out of being thrown to the ground three times? In this case, unless Demetrius came from a wealthy family, he was likely in debt to his trainers who had housed, fed and coached him in the lead-up to the games. By taking a bribe from Nicantinous’ father, they ensured they wouldn’t be out of pocket no matter what the outcome.

Dad struck a hard bargain, though. The 3,800 drachma Demetrius would receive for throwing the match was small potatoes, just about enough to purchase a donkey. On the other hand, the three talents of silver he would owe Nicantinous if he broke the contract and won was a huge sum. It may have been the amount of an expected bonus, or the amount of a bonus plus an additional penalty.

Although this is the only known contract recording a bribe between ancient athletes, there are references in ancient sources indicating that bribery in athletic competitions was not unusual. By the time of the Roman Empire, bribery in athletic competitions was getting more prevalent as the events became more lucrative, Rathbone said.

“There are sources [indicating] that things had got a bit worse in the Roman Empire when there were more games and when there were more financial rewards, particularly these municipal pensions,” Rathbone said. These pensions consisted of payments that an athlete’s hometown awarded to winners and could continue for the rest of their life.

The Great Antinoeia games were part of a religious festival held yearly in Antinopolis dedicated to the deified Antinous. Antinous was the favorite (read: lover) of the Roman emperor Hadrian. He accompanied Hadrian on his many travels all over the empire and they were in Egypt in October of 130 A.D. when Antinous drowned in the Nile. It may have been an accident, but several ancient sources believe it was deliberate, that Antinous was sacrificed or sacrificed himself to gain the favor of the gods for Hadrian.

Hadrian was grief-stricken at the loss. He had his favorite deified, something that had been the exclusive privilege of imperial family members, had medals and coins struck bearing his face (another privilege previously reserved for the imperial family), built temples to the deified Antinous and founded cities named after him. Antinopolis was built on the banks of the Nile at the place where Antinous had drowned. The cult was still going strong nearly 140 years after Antinous death and the games were part of that.

There is no record of who won what events at which games, so there’s no telling what the outcome of this backroom deal was. At some point, the contract was thrown in the garbage where it would be recovered by pioneering papyrologists Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt who first started looking through Oxyrhynchus’ trash heaps in 1896. The light covering of sand and complete lack of rainfall created a perfect storm of papyrus preservation. Over the years of excavations at Oxyrhynchus, more than 500,000 papyrus fragments were unearthed, most of which are now at the Sackler Library at Oxford.

Only a small percentage of the fragments have been translated in all this time, simply because there is such a wealth of material to go through. Discoveries range from the most rarified sole surviving copies of ancient literature to the most fascinatingly mundane sales receipts, personal letters, shopping lists and tax returns. And now, a match-fixing contract.

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Egyptian clay coffin with human face found in Jezreel

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating a site near Tel Shadud in Israel’s Jezreel Valley before a natural gas pipeline is installed in the area have unearthed a rare anthropoid clay coffin from the reign of Pharaoh Seti I (1290 B.C. to 1279 B.C.). The cylindrical coffin has a serene face sculpted in the lid, with hands crossed on his chest. Only a few similar coffins have been found before in Israel, that last of which was discovered 50 years ago.

The coffin was interred with pottery food storage vessels, a bronze dagger and bowl and animal bones. These could have been offerings to the gods and the means to provide nourishment for the deceased on his voyage to the afterworld. There was a skeleton of an adult male inside the coffin. Because the pottery was locally made, archaeologists think he was probably a local man working for the Egyptians, he could well have been Egyptian. Either way, the fact that he was buried with an Egyptian scarab seal encased in gold and bearing the name of Seti I suggests that he was of very high rank. The coffin itself confirms that, since it would have been an extremely expensive piece affordable only to the elite.

Egyptian control of Canaan had been waning since the 14th century B.C. thanks to the rising Middle Assyrian Empire. The process had accelerated in the declining days of the Eighteenth Dynasty when the social and political chaos brought on by Akhenaten’s attempted religious reformation made maintaining its empire the least of Egypt’s problems. Ramesses I, founder of the Nineteenth Dynasty, and his son Seti I sought to return order to the country and reclaim some of its lost territories.

Seti wasted no time, taking his army into Canaan starting the first year of his reign. He took advantage of nomadic incursions and infighting between the Canaanite city-states and “marched against them like a fierce-eyed lion, making them carcasses in their valleys, overturned in their blood like those that exist not. Everyone that escapes his fingers says: ‘His might toward distant countries is the might of his father Amun, who hath assigned to him a victorious valor in the countries’.” That vivid description is from the North Wall of the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak which, along with two stele unearthed at Beth She’an, a city in the Jezreel Valley about 25 miles southeast of Tel Shadud, is the main source of information about Seti I’s military campaigns.

The victorious army established fortifications at watering holes on the way back to Egypt. Beth She’an was rebuilt according to a new city plan and became an important administrative center. Its population was primarily Egyptian government and military officials and a number of artifacts imported from Egypt have been discovered there. The locally produced artifacts, mainly pottery, were made in traditional Canaanite forms or in imitation of Egyptian styles.

Archaeologists may attempt to extract DNA from the skeletal remains to determine whether the man in the expensive coffin was a local or an Egyptian, but that’s a long shot. Four other graves were found in the small 16-foot square trench, two containing the remains of men and two of women. It’s possible they are all family members. It’s also possible the area is the site of a much larger cemetery, like the one at Beth She’an.

This was just a salvage excavation, however, to unearth any archaeological remains in the path of the gas pipeline. There is no current project to expand the dig.

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Mausoleum of Augustus restoration to begin this year

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Happy 43rd birthday, Tom Carroll! This one’s for you.

Caesar Augustus, adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar and first emperor of Rome, died on August 19th, 14 A.D., 57 years to the day after he was first “elected” consul of Rome. (He showed up at the city gates with eight legions, so it wasn’t much of an election.) According to Cassius Dio (Roman History, Book LVI, Chapter 30), on his deathbed Augustus declared: “I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble.” Suetonius agrees, noting in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars that “since the city was not adorned as the dignity of the empire demanded, and was exposed to flood and fire, he so beautified it that he could justly boast that he had found it built of brick and left it in marble.”

The first of Augustus’ many marble-clad improvements to the city of Rome was a monumental tomb for himself and his family. Construction began upon his return from Egypt in 31 B.C. after the final defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. With Antony dead by his own hand and Lepidus exiled, Augustus was the last triumvir standing and the sole ruler of Rome. While in Egypt, Augustus had visited the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria, leaving flowers and placing a golden diadem on Alexander’s head. The grand Hellenistic mausoleum inspired the Augustus’ version built on the Campus Martius in Rome.

The tomb was completed in 28 B.C. Here’s Strabo’s description of it in Geography, Book V, Chapter 3:

The most noteworthy [among the great tombs on the Campus Martius] is what is called the Mausoleum, a great mound near the river on a lofty foundation of white marble, thickly covered with ever-green trees to the very summit. Now on top is a bronze image of Augustus Caesar; beneath the mound are the tombs of himself and his kinsmen and intimates; behind the mound is a large sacred precinct with wonderful promenades; and in the centre of the Campus is the wall (this too of white marble) round his crematorium; the wall is surrounded by a circular iron fence and the space within the wall is planted with black poplars.

The circular walls of the tomb were made of brick and clad in white marble or travertine. The roof was supported by vaults which left the inside sectioned for family burials. The entry arch was framed on either side with red granite obelisks pillaged from Egypt. The finished Mausoleum was 295 feet in diameter and an estimated 137 feet high (not counting the height of the cypress trees).

The first to be buried in the Mausoleum was Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew, who died in 23 B.C. The ashes of Augustus’ mother Atia Balba, who had died in 43 B.C., were moved to the family tomb at the same time. Next was Augustus’ greatest general and son-in-law Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in 12 B.C. Three years later was the turn of Nero Claudius Drusus, Augustus’ stepson. His sister Octavia also died and was buried around that time (her exact year of death is unknown, either 11 or 9 B.C.). The sons of Agrippa and Augustus’ daughter Julia were next, Lucius in 2 A.D., Gaius in 4 A.D. Augustus himself followed Gaius 10 years later.

After Augustus’ death, his wife Livia followed, then Germanicus, Agrippina the Elder, Agrippina’s daughter Livilla, Germanicus’ sons Nero and Drusus Caesar, Caligula, Tiberius, Tiberius’ son Drusus Julius Caesar, Claudius’ parents Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia, then Claudius, his son Britannicus and Nero’s wife Poppaea Sabina (whose body was embalmed rather than cremated). The last emperor to join the illustrious crowd in the Mausoleum was Nerva, who died in 98 A.D.

Basically, the entire cast of I, Claudius wound up in the Mausoleum. The only exceptions were the exiled and disgraced Julio-Claudians, like Augustus’ only daughter Julia who died shortly after her father and was explicitly prohibited from being buried with her dad by the terms of his will. Her daughter Julia suffered the same fate. The Emperor Nero, last of the Julio-Claudian line, was buried with his paternal family in the Mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi.

The monument remained one of the most important ones in Rome until it was pillaged by the Visigoths in the 5th century. After that, like so many of its brethren it was used as a source of construction materials by Romans. The pink granite obelisks were toppled and buried. The first was rediscovered in the 16th century by Pope Sixtus V who moved it to the Piazza dell’Esquilino where it flanks the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The other was rediscovered in the 18th century and moved to the fountain between the equestrian statues of the Dioscuri on the Quirinal hill.

And so Augustus’ legacy reverted from marble back to brick. As would later happen to the tomb of Hadrian, now the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Mausoleum of Augustus was converted into a fortress in the 12th century by the Colonna family. When they were defeated by the Counts of Tusculum in the Battle of Monte Porzio in 1167, the Mausoleum was stripped of its fortifications leaving it in ruin.

It still maintained its cachet to Romans, however. Cola di Rienzo, Tribune of the People, Senator of Rome, who briefly ruled the city over the howls of the Pope and endlessly bickering Roman nobility, was brutally killed in 1354 on my birthday, no less (well, 618 years before my birthday, but on the same day, is my point), and after his corpse was outraged for two days and a night, it was taken to the Mausoleum of Augustus and burned.

In 1519, Pope Leo X, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, had what was left of the travertine cladding removed to use as paving stones for the Via Ripetta, the street that leads to the Mausoleum. Pope Paul III sold the Mausoleum in 1546 to Monsignor Francesco Soderini who excavated the site looking for ancient sculptures and then converted the Mausoleum into a sculpture garden with a hedge labyrinth that was popular with artists, classicists and antiquarians. The Soderini’s financial difficulties gradually saw the sculptures dispersed, although the Mausoleum remained a garden until 1780 when it was acquired by the Marquess Francesco Saverio Vivaldi-Armentieri. He turned it into an amphitheater with elegant boxes and seating for 1,000. There he staged bullfights and buffalo fights (of the water buffalo variety, not the American bison variety), operas, theatricals and on summer nights, fireworks displays at which all the noblewomen of Rome wore white dresses so the colors bursting in air would be reflected in their garments.

The amphitheater wasn’t very profitable and in 1802 the Pope Pius VII bought the Mausoleum back. It was still used for spectacles of various sorts — animal fights, balls, carnivals, circuses, lottery drawings, plays, equestrian displays, even a test of fire-retardant materials like that asbestos suit I mentioned in a recent entry. After the Unification of Italy, the Vatican sold the Mausoleum to the Count Telfener who put a roof on it and renamed it the Amphitheater Umberto I after the new King of Italy. It was used for plays, concerts and operas, no more buffalo fights.

In 1909 it was refurbished yet again in Art Nouveau style and named the Augusteo in recognition of its original builder. Expanded to seat 3,500 people, the Augusteo was the seat of Rome’s main orchestra conducted by the great Arturo Toscanini, among others. Mussolini put an end to all that in 1936. He kicked out all the musicians, tore down the Renaissance buildings around it and ripped out all the theatrical modifications to return the Mausoleum to its original Roman masonry. This was a key part of his program of associating himself with the glory of ancient Rome and depicting himself as a second Augustus. Unfortunately, he did a piss-poor job of it. He had cypresses planted on top of the walls, in the mistaken belief that that’s where they had been placed originally instead of on the earthen tumulus. Inside the Mausoleum he had a squat two-storey tower built to mark the spot where Augustus’ ashes were once enshrined.

The end result of this brutal hack job was a Mausoleum in tatters, a derelict island in the middle of a traffic-engorged piazza. Homeless people found refuge under its walls and fences went up in a futile attempt to keep them out. Colonnaded Fascist buildings line the square while the real thing continues to decay. You can see its unfortunate current situation on Google Street View. Hadrian’s mausoleum, still clad in its medieval fortress trappings, is one of the icons of Rome, but Augustus’ tomb, which held the ashes of the first emperor and so many other august (*cough*) personages, doesn’t even make it onto postcards.

There was a plan to restore it in 2006 when the new glass enclosure of the Ara Pacis was built, but the funding never materialized, and the recession has starved Rome of the budget to maintain its ancient treasures.

Now Rome is reaching out to private donors to make up for its slashed budgets and it seems someone has stepped up to the plate for the Mausoleum of Augustus, one of the most expensive and difficult restorations in Rome. Mayor Ignazio Marino says a Saudi prince has approached him, expressing interest in funding the work. Who knows if that will come through, but meanwhile two million euros of public moneys have been allocated to get the process started. The mayor claims work will begin before the end of the year so that it will be in concert with the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus’ death.

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Free online course on the archaeology of Portus

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Researchers from the University of Southampton have been excavating the ancient man-made harbour of Portus in modern day Fiumicino, 20 miles southwest of Rome, since 1998. In collaboration with experts from the British School at Rome, the University of Cambridge, and the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, they have explored the warehouses of Septimius Severus, the imperial palace, cisterns, an amphitheater, a massive shipyard, a bath complex and more.

The Portus Project website describes the immense historical significance of this site.

Portus (Fiumicino) was the maritime port of ancient Rome and, together with the neighbouring river port at Ostia, was the focus of a network of ports serving Imperial Rome between the mid-1st century AD and the 6th century AD. It was established by Claudius in the mid-1st century AD, enlarged by Trajan, and subsequently modified during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The port began to enter a period of slow decline from the late 5th century AD onwards, although it was the scene of a major struggle between Byzantine and Ostrogothic troops during the Gothic wars (AD 535-553).

Portus was critically important for supplying the city of Imperial Rome with foodstuffs and materials from across the Mediterranean from the 1st century AD onwards. It also acted as both a point of export for supplies and products from the Tiber Valley to the north of Rome, and a major hub for the redistribution of goods from ports across the Mediterranean. It must also have acted as a major conduit for people visiting Rome from around the Mediterranean.

Now the University of Southampton is giving all us little nerd urchins (nurchins?) a chance to do more than press our faces against the glass. It’s offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the archaeology of Portus. The course is open to everyone free of charge and will include access to all the Portus Project’s research data so that students can explore the nuts and bolts of Portus and the archaeological process.

On this course you will chart a journey from the Imperial harbour to its connections across the Mediterranean, learning about what the archaeological discoveries uncovered by the Portus Project tell us about the history, landscape, buildings, and the people of this unique place. Although the site lies in ruins, it has some of the best-preserved Roman port buildings in the Mediterranean, and in this course you will learn to interpret these and the finds discovered within them, using primary research data and the virtual tools of the archaeologist.

Largely filmed on location at Portus, the course will provide you with an insight into the wide range of digital technologies employed to record, analyse and present the site. In addition to the lead educators, our enthusiastic team of student archaeologists will support your learning.

To register click here, fill in your name and email address and check the privacy policy and code of conduct boxes. The course starts on May 19th and is divided into six week-long classes. Once it’s open, you can go through the whole program in a weekend, if you want, or you can stretch it out longer than six weeks to suit your schedule. There are discussion modules with technology that allows you to follow particular learners. There’s a handy dandy Twitter hashtag (#UoSFLPortus) to carry on the conversation on social media. There are quizzes, scored tests and what looks like some really awesome homework.

So how about it? Shall we take a Roman archaeology class together? :boogie:

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Iron Age mint found in Leicester

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

An archaeological survey on the site of future construction in Leicester, central England, has unearthed evidence of an Iron Age mint. More than 20 Iron Age coin molds have been discovered at the Blackfriars site since excavations began in January, so large a number that it strongly suggests the site was a mint used by the local British tribe, the Corieltavi, who had their capital at Leicester.

What makes this find particularly exciting is that Leicester is just 15 miles west of Hallaton, the village where a massive treasure including 5,296 British silver and gold coins, 4,835 of them from the Corieltavi tribe, was discovered in 2000. It’s the largest group of Iron Age British coins ever found in Britain. Roman coins and coins from other British tribes were also found at Hallaton, along with a Roman cavalry parade helmet, silver bowls, jewelry, the remains of 400 pigs and several dogs. The site was an open-air shrine in use between 50 B.C. and 60 A.D., with the valuables interred as offerings to the gods.

Given that the British coins found at Hallaton make up 10% of the total number of British Iron Age coins ever discovered, it makes sense that there would be a nearby source, like, say, a Corieltavi mint in Leicester. The molds don’t have reverse images to identify the kinds of coins struck. They were dated to the early 1st century A.D. thanks to fragments of high status pottery recovered from the ditch where the first coin mold was found.

The site appears to have been an enclosure in the British Iron Age. There were at least two distinct phases of Iron Age activity, followed by at least three phases of Roman activity. Most of the structural remains come Roman phases of occupation, starting with a residential townhouse. There are foundations and partial walls, no floors, but the remains of mosaic tesserae and painted plaster that indicate the house was highly decorated and therefore expensive. There was also a colonnade, as evidenced by surviving column bases. The walls were thick and supported by buttresses so it must have been a building of considerably size.

Inside the building evidence of burning and of a kiln over multiple floor layers suggest at some point this building was dedicated to industrial use, perhaps the production of roof and floor tiles. Several tiles have been found bearing the adorable signs of why they were discarded.

The team also found a Roman tile in the northern half of the site, with what appear to be dog paw imprints embedded in the ceramic.

Nick said: “When tiles were made in Roman times, they used to get local clay and leave it out in the sun to dry and pets and animals used to escape across them leaving these kinds of imprints – it was quite a common thing to find.

“We’ve also found some floor or roof tiles with sheep or goat prints here as well.”

Also one with what may be cat prints judging by the size, shape and the absence of visible claws.

Much of the masonry and columns were lost over time, probably repurposed in the Middle Ages for construction of the Blackfriars Priory. There are several instances of medieval construction features cut into the Roman archaeology, plus the remains of medieval pottery and cesspits.

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Christian tattoo found on 8th c. Sudanese mummy

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Researchers have discovered a unique Christian tattoo on the inner thigh of a mummy unearthed in a cemetery along the banks of the Nile in Sudan nine years ago. The woman, who was 5’2″ tall and between 20 and 35 years old at the time of her death, was wrapped in a linen and wool shroud and buried around 700 A.D. The arid heat of the desert naturally mummified her, preserving some soft tissues like skin and internal organs. The skin of her inner thigh is so well preserved that the ink is still visible to the naked eye, but it’s quite faint. It wasn’t until last year when the mummy was given a CT scan at a London hospital and photographed with infra-red reflectography that British Museum archaeologists were able to identify the tattoo as a monogram of the letters Μιχαήλ, meaning Michael.

This is an exceptionally rare find. It’s the first tattoo of any kind found from this period in the Nile Valley. Michael was the patron saint of Christian medieval Sudan, so his name is invoked frequently in inscriptions. The monogram, which stacks the letters of Michael’s name so it looks almost like an upside angel, has been found engraved on stele and in graffiti on churches from that time, but this is the first tattoo of the symbol ever discovered.

The purpose of the tattoo is, of course, unknown, since the only person who could tell us has been dead for 1,300 years. I imagine it had much the same purpose as religious iconography has in tattoos today: expressing reverence, faith, or asking for the intercession of the saint. It could also have been a protective invocation, in the same way that words from the Christian gospels were used to ward off evil in the 12th century Makurian crypt found at the archaeological site of Old Dongola, Sudan.

I wasn’t able to found out where precisely she was discovered — the Nile runs through all of modern Sudan and there are many archaeological sites along its banks — but my best guess is that it was one of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project excavations which focused on several medieval Christian cemeteries threatened by the construction of a dam at the Fourth Cataract (the most impassable of the Nile’s rapids). The opening scene in the Telegraph’s video looks like the Fourth Cataract where the rapids have carved out several small islands, some of which have Christian cemeteries. If that is the location, it’s south of Old Dongola, but still in the Kingdom of Makuria.

It is not clear who did the tattoo in ancient Sudan, and whether it was visible to other natives.

High up on her inner thigh, it may or may not have been out of view. And for all its scientific expertise, the British Museum admits to being unclear as to what exactly was the fashionable length of skirt worn by an ordinary Nile dwelling female in AD 700.

I don’t see her inner thigh tattoo being designed for public display. It seems like a deliberately private location no matter how short skirts may have been in Sudan 1,300 years ago. It’s going to be on public display now, though. This mummy is the youngest of eight from various periods in the Nile Valley that will be features in the British Museum’s Ancient Lives: New Discoveries. The show runs from May 22nd through November 30th and will use interactive technology to tell the stories of these eight people’s lives and deaths.

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Pharaoh Claudius erects pole for fertility god

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Researchers from Swansea University in Wales and the KU Leuven University in Belgium have identified a carving of Roman emperor Claudius as a pharaoh participating in an ancient ritual for the fertility god Min on the western wall of the temple of Shanhur about 12 miles north of Luxor. The temple dates to the Roman era. It was first built as a temple to Isis under Augustus but the carvings on the western and eastern exterior walls, 36 on each, were all done during the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.).

The carvings were first exposed during an archaeological excavation in 2000-2001. Before that they had been covered by a mound of soil that obscured and protected the exterior temple walls, leaving the carvings in excellent condition. In the decade or so since they lost the protection of the mound, the carvings, made on lower grade limestone that is highly susceptible to erosion, have unfortunately been weathered so they’re much harder to make out now. The Swansea-KU Leuven team began recording and translating the exterior wall carvings in 2010.

It’s scene 123 on the western wall that is the stand-out piece, both in terms of preservation and historical significance. It depicts Claudius doing the ritual of the raising of the pole for Min, the Egyptian god of fertility and power. This ritual is ancient, going back 4,300 years to the Old Kingdom, which we know from the 32 extant scenes of the pole-raising that have been found. What makes this one so special is not just the involvement of Clau-Clau-Claudius (if you haven’t seen I, Claudius, please do so immediately; there will be a test), but the fact that the inscriptions include a precise date when this particular ritual took place. It’s the only one of the 32 that does.

The scene shows Claudius garbed in pharaonic regalia. He wears a complex crown known as the “Roaring One” made out of three rushes embellished by sun discs and solarized falcons. The rushes are flanked by ostrich feathers and perched on ram horns. He carries two ceremonial staffs in his left hand and a scepter in his right. The accompanying inscription identifies him and dates the ritual:

King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands, Tiberios Klaudios
Son of Ra, Lord of the Crowns, Kaisaros Sebastos Germanikos Autokrator
Raising the pole of the tent/cult chapel for his father in month 2 of the smw-season (Payni), day 19.

Min stands across from Claudius, facing him. He holds a flail and wears a double feather crown with sun disc. As is customary for this fertility god, he also sports a magnificent erection. Behind him is his cult chapel and between him and Claudius eight men enact the ritual by climbing four poles propped against a central a pole topped by a crescent moon.

The inscriptions and iconography suggest that by performing this ritual, Claudius assumes the formidable characteristics of Min:

[Words spoken by Min (or Min-Ra)… Lord of?] Coptos, Lord of Panopolis (Akhmim), who is on top of his stairway,
[…] King of the gods, strong sovereign, who captures
[…] who roars when he rages, lord of fear,
[…] the one who brings into control the warhorses, whose fear is in the Two Lands,
[…] about whose beauty one boasts, who inflicts terror/scares away with his strength.

He’s not roaring with rage at Claudius, though, thanks to the pole-raising. By executing the ritual, Claudius keeps the cult of Min alive and asserts his power over “the (southern) foreign lands” which, according to the inscription, Min gives to him.

The inclusion of a date indicates that this ritual event actually happened, although Claudius himself was not present in person. He never went to Egypt. A priest probably acted as his proxy, something that was common even in the pharaonic era since the king couldn’t possibly be present for every ritual.

There’s another Claudius-Min ritual carved in the exterior eastern wall. In this one Claudius makes an offering of lettuce to Min and Horus the Child. The lettuce symbolizes Egypt’s crops which will be made abundant thanks to Min and his prodigious endowment.

[Take for] you the lettuce (|‘n) in order to unite it with your body (or phallus) and lettuce in order to make procreative [your] phallus

You can read the whole paper here if you register (registration is free).

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Shaman guarded shaft tomb in Mexico for 1500 years

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Archaeologists broke a 1,500-year-old protection streak when they discovered an intact shaft tomb guarded by a shaman figurine in Villa de Alvarez in the western Mexican state of Colima. Although the shaman, characterized by his long face and holding a handled weapon of some kind that may have been an axe, couldn’t keep the archaeologists out, he did an exceptional job protecting whoever was buried there from being desecrated by looters. Intact shaft tombs are rarely found because the grave goods they contain are highly sought-after artifacts.

The shaft tomb was found during an archaeological exploration of 10 hectares of land which has unearthed multiple cist burials containing human and canine remains that date to late in the Comala phase of development, 400-600 A.D. Near the cists, archaeologist Marco Zavaleta found three flat stones that were lifted to reveal the vertical well that is the entrance to the shaft tomb. The tunnel is almost five feet deep and leads to a tomb lined with a solid layer of tepetate, a kind of volcanic rock. It’s the rock that dates the burial to earlier in Comala period, between 0 and 500 A.D.

Inside the tomb archaeologists found six ceramic pots of varying sizes and shapes and one gourd which were interred as offerings to the gods. The pots will be analyzed for any organic residue or remains, like food or seeds. Standing proudly upright in front of the tomb was the star of the group: a 19-inch shaman figurine. His elongated head is suggestive of intentional cranial deformation, a practice that has been confirmed in skeletal remains from this period. Archaeologist Marco Zavaleta believes the shaman was ritually “killed” by being deliberately broken before placement in the tomb. That’s why his weapon is incomplete and why his headdress is missing standard elements like a horn.

Whoever he was protecting must have been part of the city’s elite. Only the wealthy at the top of the social ladder had the power and money to commission these kinds of elaborate funerary structures, and they had the wherewithal to get people (and animals) to accompany them on their voyage to the afterlife. The skeletal remains of one or two adults were found on either side of the tomb vault, which is about six and a half feet in diameter. They’ve been disturbed, indicating that they were removed from their previous location to make room for another burial. The main burial was found in a lower level of the excavation and is an adult male lying on his back.

Outside the tomb the partial remains of dogs and children were found, and one infant appears to have been thrown down the well. Animal teeth found scattered inside the tomb may have been part of a necklace the infant was wearing when sacrificed.

“An important piece of information in this particular case is the immense presence of children. They were all placed around the tomb. There are practically no adult individuals. We would have to analyse the relationship between the children, the shaman and the dogs, who are protecting and preparing (for burial) but why were these children placed here?” [archaeologist Rosa Maria Flores] said.

The number of children buried in the tomb was not clear, archaeologists said.

The discovery of the intact tomb has provided University of Colima computer students and teachers with the opportunity to survey the site and create a 3D virtual model of it. Using a computer, a game controller and specialized software that converts video images into photogrammetric data, the team has been able to create a virtual copy of the well, vaulted tomb and artifacts.

This will be the first intact shaft tomb to have a virtual model, an invaluable educational resource that will allow people to follow the progress of the excavation and examine the tomb structure and distribution of archaeological finds. You can see a preview of the virtual tomb towards the end of this short Spanish-language video on the tomb discovery:

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