Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

3,000-year-old bronze trove found in Chinese tomb

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Archaeologists excavating a tomb complex from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 B.C.) in Baoji, Shaanxi province, northwest China, have unearthed 44 pieces of bronzeware and two pieces of pottery, a trove of national importance. The tomb was discovered in June of this year by villagers working the land. They alerted the authorities and state archaeologists have been excavating the site since August.

The bronzeware is divided among eight niches. The quantity of the bronze vessels and the system of niches they inhabit make it a very rare discovery that gives archaeologists a unique chance to study the burial practices of the early Western Zhou period. The pieces would have had a variety of uses — cooking, food storage, holding water or alcoholic beverages — The sheer numbers of bronzeware and their elaborate, delicate decoration point to this being the tomb of a nobleman, someone of great wealth and social standing in the area.

Lead archaeologist Wang Zhankui hopes the inscriptions on the bronze vessels once translation may identify who was buried in the tomb.

Last year, a Western Zhou-era tomb discovered in Baoji was found to contain a rich collection of bronze vessels as well, albeit less than half the number discovered here. One of the containers was still sealed. When archaeologists shook it, they could hear liquid sloshing inside which led to a speculative frenzy declaring it the oldest wine ever found in China. That was a hasty reaction, but the presence of what is probably some sort of alcoholic beverage in the vessel was of particular historical note given its burial with another bronze piece: a square piece three feet long called a “Jin” which was inscribed with admonitions against the excessive consumption of alcohol.

This is a recurring theme in early Western Zhou bronzes. A ding (a bronze cauldron on feet now in the National Museum of China) made during the reign of King Kang (1020 – 996 B.C.) bears an inscription to his minister Yu attributing the fall of the Shang Dynasty to alcohol and the rise of the Western Zhou to its prohibition.

In the Shangshu or Book of Documents, a collection of historical speeches and sayings by rulers from four dynasties up to the Western Zhou, includes an Announcement about Drunkenness, purportedly made by King Wen of Zhou, the titular founder of the Western Zhou dynasty although in fact it was his son who carried out his father’s plans and finally overthrew the decadent Shang Dynasty. King Wen directly blames the Shang king’s alcoholism for the fall of his dynasty:

“I have heard it said likewise, that the last successor of those kings was addicted to drink, so that no charges came from him brightly before the people, and he was (as if) reverently and unchangingly bent on doing and cherishing what provoked resentment. Greatly abandoned to extraordinary lewdness and dissipation, for pleasure’s sake he sacrificed all his majesty. The people were all sorely grieved and wounded in heart; but he gave himself wildly up to drink, not thinking of restraining himself. but continuing his excess, till his mind was frenzied, and he had no fear of death His crimes (accumulated) in the capital of Shang: and though the extinction of the dynasty (was imminent), this gave him no concern, and he wrought not that any sacrifices of fragrant virtue might ascend to Heaven. The rank odour of the people’s resentments, and the drunkenness of his herd of creatures, went loudly up on high, so that Heaven sent down ruin on Yin, and showed no love for it – because of such excesses. There is not any cruel oppression of Heaven; people themselves accelerate their guilt, (and its punishment)).”

He is very keen, therefore, to ensure his own people do not fall victim to the dangers of spirits.

King Wen admonished and instructed the young nobles, who were charged with office or in any employment, that they should not ordinarily use spirits; and throughout all the states, he required that such should drink spirits only on occasion of sacrifices, and that then virtue should preside so that there might be no drunkenness.

And should admonishment not suffice, then sterner measures are in order.

“If you are informed that there are companies that drink together, do not fail to apprehend them all, and send them here to Zhou, where I may put them to death. As to the ministers and officers of Yin who were led to it and became addicted to drink, it is not necessary to put them to death (at once); let them be taught for a time. If they follow these (lessons of mine), I will give them bright distinction. If they disregard my lessons, then I, the One man, will show them no pity. As they cannot change their way, they shall be classed with those who are to be put to death.”


Happy belated Sigillaria!

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

This is going to be a shamelessly short entry due to the yearly flurry of present and nog-related activities. Thankfully, the University of Reading has done all the work for me. Classics professor Dr. Matthew Nicholls, developer of Virtual Rome, a digital model of the ancient city, has compiled a neat rundown of the ancient sources on the Roman festival of Sigillaria. Held on December 23rd, Sigillaria was the culmination of a week of Saturnalia celebrations, a day of gift-giving and quaffing the questionable wine combinations that Romans were so fond of.

Quality of presents varied enormously. The traditional present for the Saturnalia was some nuts – not unlike old fashioned handful of walnuts in a Christmas stocking. Martial mentions ‘gifts given and received’ some of which sound rather familiar.

“Fish-sauce, jars of honey, bottles of wine, toothpicks, a pencil case, perfume, a flask encased in wicker-work and clothing – even an item that sounds like an ugly but warm Christmas sweater…a ‘shaggy nursling of a weaver on the Seine, a barbarian garment … a thing uncouth but not to be despised in cold December … that searching cold may not pass into your limbs … you will laugh at rain and winds, clothed in this gift’.

Uncouth compared to a toga, perhaps, but surely no worse than a tunic, albeit a fuzzy one. Besides, if it comes from the a weaver on the banks of the Seine, that makes it couture by default. Anyway it’s the thought that counts, right? Right!

“It’s warming to hear that the festive spirit was alive 2000 years ago. Martial tells us that the quality of a friendship can’t be measured by the value of the gifts, and even tells recipients of his cheap presents that he’s been ‘mean’ to save them the expense of buying something expensive in return (Ep. 5.59: ‘people who give much, want to receive much in return’). Simple presents were a token of friendship.

In Epigrams Book 13 and Book 14, Martial makes long lists of what presents to give during the winter festival. The range is vast, from knives to hatchets to nuts to toothpicks to letter-writing parchment to a golden hair pin to pomatum, a hair pomade (spot the etymology) the Germans used to redden their barbarous locks. That’s not the only hair dye on the list either. There are plenty of items Martial would have given his friends that we give today.

Then there’s all the food. Did you put barley water and large-headed leeks under your tree for the kiddies this year? If you did, I hope you survive to tell the tale.

Happy belated Sigillaria, all!


Riace Bronzes back on display after four years

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

The Riace Bronzes, the pristine pair of 5th century B.C. Greek bronze warriors discovered off the coast of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, in 1972, have gone back on public display after an involuntary hiatus of four years. At 4:30 PM Italian time, Culture Minister Massimo Bray officially opened the doors of the Palazzo Piacentini, home of the National Museum of Reggio Calabria, allowing the invited guests to view the splendid Bronzes, vertical again for the first time since 2009. The doors will open to the general public tomorrow.

The museum building was designed in the late 1930s by Fascist favorite architect Marcello Piacentini and was in fairly good condition but needed extensive renovations to expand and modernize the space and update the facilities and technology. The Bronzes are world-class artifacts, unique and famous all over the globe. A lot of work was necessary to make the Palazzo Piacentini suitable for the crowds of people who would visit the statues if they could. It was also in desperate need of anti-seismic retrofits to ensure the safety of its precious contents in a city that has been virtually leveled by earthquakes at least a half-dozen times since antiquity.

To make way for the refurbishment, in 2009 the Riace Bronzes were removed from their bases and gingerly transported to the nearby Palazzo Campanella (see the video in this entry for footage of the painstaking transportation process), seat of the Regional Council of Calabria, where they were placed on their backs in a climate-controlled glassed-in space. There experts were able to take advantage of the opportunity to study, test and conserve the statues. That opportunity was only supposed to be two years long, but budgetary problems and a million other delays got in the way of the museum’s renovation. While Palazzo Piacentini continued to be indisposed, the Bronzes, Reggio Calabria’s greatest tourist draw, were indisposed along with it.

In their newly renovated hall, the statues now stand on new anti-seismic pedestals which anchor the statues to the floor even as they allow them to move by balancing the floor the Bronzes stand on over four spheres of marble. A system of counterweights ensures the statues will be able to remain standing on their pedestals should an earthquake strike. A handsome Carrara marble casing surrounds the pedestal.

Their idealized musculature is set off to its best advantage by a new lighting system and the reopening of windows that had been bricked up years ago. A state-of-the-art climate control and air filtration system ensures that the many artifacts from Magna Graecia (Greater Greece, the collective term for Greece’s southern Italian colonies) on display in the museum and in particular the Riace Bronzes are kept free of contaminants and in proper climactic conditions.

Other changes to the museum building include the addition of a roof restaurant with a beautiful view of the Straits of Messina, a new great hall for temporary exhibitions, a conference hall, a library and an underground level for storage of artifacts. The internal courtyard just beyond the entrance doors has been topped with a glass roof over an airy steel structure (it’s the first tensegrity roof in Italy) to create a new lobby from which visitors can see the Bronzes in their dedicated hall in the distance. They’ll get to see them up close in all their glory at the end of the route through the museum.

The renovation isn’t quite finished yet. Work on the roof, the conference hall and some of the other new spaces continues. The complete museum is expected to be open for business in April of next year, but considering that this was all supposed to be finished in 2011 in time for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the unification of Italy, I’d take that date with a grain of salt. At least the Riace Bronzes and many of the other ancient treasures of the museum are back in public view where they belong. As recently as last month the talk was they wouldn’t be back until the new year at the earliest.

It’s all the more important that these masterpieces of Early Classical Greek art have a permanent, stable home because the odds of them traveling again are basically nil. They are so delicate, especially in the solder joints, that any movement at all is a major risk to their integrity. Both warriors have braces on their left arms, the ones bent at the elbow that probably once held spears, to relieve the stress on the joints. When the Bronzes were moved from the Palazzo Campanella two weeks ago, it took one hour to transport them less than a half a mile. Extrapolate that speed, and they would have to leave now to make it to Milan by 2015.

Not that Reggio would let them go even if they could. The region has hard a time of it lately, between the economy and the struggle against the pervasive ‘Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate (last fall the entire Reggio city council was dismissed for suspicion of ‘Ndrangheta infiltration), and the return of the Riace Bronzes is seen as a rebirth of Reggio and of Calabria as a whole, a fresh start with a focus on the regions rich cultural patrimony bringing in much-needed tourist revenue.


Stone armor pit at Terracotta Army tomb excavated

Friday, December 20th, 2013

The mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (reigned 247 B.C. – 220 B.C.) is famous for the vast Terracotta Army interred with him to protect him in the afterlife. Only a fraction of the warrior pits have been excavated. There are an estimated 8,000 warriors and horses in the three main pits. Two thousand have been unearthed, and just over half of them are in good enough condition to be on display. The Terracotta Warriors aren’t even in the main tomb. They’re a garrison just under a mile (1.5 kilometers) east of the emperor’s tomb, which is a mound 250 feet high.

The emperor’s tomb is at the center of the underground palace necropolis. While the imperial burial itself remains largely unexcavated, archaeologists have dug around it and found chariots, horses, terracotta court officials, terracotta acrobats, musicians, strongmen, bronze birds, the remains of real sacrificed horses served by terracotta grooms, mass graves of some of the estimated 700,000 workmen who labored 38 years in the construction of the necropolis complex.

In 1998, Chinese archaeologists unearthed a burial chamber to the southeast of the tomb mound. There they excavated more than 80 sets of ceremonial armor made out of limestone plates, forty helmets and horse armor. The armor was made out of limestone plates, more than 600 individual plates per set, which were connected by bronze wires that gave the plate enough flexibility to allow theoretical movement. This was not actual usable armor, however. They’re stone copies of the two kinds of armor that were used: the leather armor with rectangular plates of the common soldier and the iron fish-scale armor of the generals.

The artisans who created the stone armor painstakingly created each individual plate by hand, using sandstone to grind them to a consistent thickness of .3 centimeters. They perforated the plates repeatedly so that the bronze wires could be threaded through. This was a significant technical challenge, because the thin limestone plates are easily cracked. Archaeologists believe the stone was kept constantly wet while craftsmen drilled the holes with an iron spiral hand drill. There are six to 14 holes on each plate. When they experimented with replica materials, archaeologists found it took about three minutes to drill one hole. That means in drilling time alone, the plates for a single set of armor would have taken 350 work hours to complete.

The armor in the pit is in multiple layers, some containing relatively complete sets still connected, some with a jumble of strewn plates, some in good condition, some burned, possibly by the dastardly Xiang Yu. Archaeologists weren’t able to remove the armor plates that were still connected with the bronze wire, so, tragically, they cut the wires, pulled them out and then recovered the individual plates. Obviously this was very far from ideal, what with the destruction of priceless historical material, so researchers went back to the drawing board to figure out some way to remove the armor while still intact.

Experiments with cyclododecane (CDD), a consolidant compound that is liquid at around 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees C) and forms a wax-like coating when it solidifies. At ambient temperatures, it steadily sublimes until it’s gone. After years of trials, in 2004, CDD-impregnated cotton gauze was applied to a section of armor. It worked like a charm, essentially gluing the armor together. The section was encased in cardboard frame reinforced with wood. The frame was filled with polyurethane foam and straps were embedded in it. Once the poly foam had fully hardened, archaeologists pulled on the straps and the whole thing came out cleanly. No pieces were lost or damaged. The bottom of the plates and wires were cleaned, then the poly and CDD removed and the top cleaned.

The test was so successful that in 2005 a complete set of armor was removed from the pit. It was restored and put on display in the Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum at the mausoleum site and on the road.

Meanwhile, back at the pit, an estimated 6,000 more sets of armor slumbered in their thick layers. Now excavations have begun again and there is fantastic footage of the crazy puzzle of armor in the pit. I can’t embed it, but you can see the excavation in this CNTV video.


Sotheby’s to return looted statue to Cambodia

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Seven months after the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned a pair of 10th-century Khmer statues known as the Kneeling Attendants that had been looted from the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia, Sotheby’s has agreed to return a statue looted from the same temple that has pbeen blocked from sale for two years. It’s been a long, arduous process of diplomacy, negotiation and legal wrangling, none of it pretty and some of it impressively nasty, even for a cultural property dispute.

Our story begins more than a 1,000 years ago when King Jayavarman IV moved the capital of the Khmer Empire to Koh Ker, a remote site 75 miles northeast of Siem Reap and the previous capital of Angkor. It was 928 A.D. and up until this point, Khmer sculptural art was characterized by static figures, most of them carved bas reliefs of Hindu deities and mythology. Jayavarman IV commissioned a whole new style of carving for his new capital. In Koh Ker, statues of gods and warriors were made to be freestanding, their poses dynamic captures of figures in movement. One group in front of the western pavilion of Prasat Chen Temple featured 9 statues depicting the final battle between Duryodhana and his nemesis Bhima from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Massive 500-pound sandstone statues of the two enemies were posed facing each mid-fight, surrounded by their supporters.

Koh Ker only remained capital until 944, after which it decayed into ruin while the jungle reclaimed its former dominance. The site’s remoteness was both a blessing and a curse, contributing to its decay and keeping it safe from the kind of predation Angkor was victim to. It wasn’t until the 1950s that French archaeologists recognized Koh Ker’s historical significance and paid regular attention to it. In 1965, the site was explored and documented by Madeleine Giteau, curator of the National Museum, who found it exceptionally well-preserved with the statues and structures virtually untouched. When a French archaeologist returned two years later, he found looting had already begun, thanks in large part to the construction of a new road which made the removal of artifacts to Thailand for sale more practical. Political upheaval and spillover from the Vietnam War put a lot of local armed insurgent groups and foreign fighters in the area and made looting antiquities to sell for hard cash a particularly attractive prospect.

According to an amended complaint from the United States Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, the statue of Duryodhana was cut off its base in around 1972 by an organized network of looters and sold to a dealer in Bangkok. There it was purchased by Douglas Latchford, the same collector of Khmer art who donated the bodies of both Kneeling Attendants and one of their heads to the Met, who arranged for the illegal export of the statue to the London auction house of Spink & Son, the same auction house from which he either bought the Kneeling Attendants directly or acted as a front for the Met to buy them from, depending on whose story you believe. Spink & Son sold Duryodhana to a Belgian collector in 1975. The widow of said collector, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, consigned the statue to Sotheby’s for sale in 2010.

Duryodhana became the centerpiece of Sotheby’s Asian sale in March of 2011. He was on the cover of the catalog and was extolled as a unique and exceptional example of Khmer artistry. Just hours before it was to go on the block, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An sent a letter to the auction house officially requesting the return of the statue as an artifact illegally exported from Cambodia. Sotheby’s withdrew its flagship artifact, estimated to sell for $3 million – $4 million, from the sale. For a year after the first blocked sale attempt, Sotheby’s negotiated with the government of Cambodia to arrange a private sale. Hungarian art collector Istvan Zelnik volunteered to buy the statue for $1 million and donate it to Cambodia.

The talks fell through — Sotheby’s claimed it was the Department of Homeland Security’s fault because they pressured the Cambodian government not to agree to the sale so they could get all the kudos for a diplomatic arrangement; the US Attorney said it was Sotheby’s fault because they turned down the million dollar offer — and in April of 2012, the U.S. Attorney filed a civil suit in federal court seeking forfeiture of the statue on Cambodia’s behalf. Sotheby’s denied strenuously that there was sufficient evidence to prove the statue was looted (even though its matching feet are still in place in Koh Ker), denied knowing all along that it was stolen (even though there’s a long email discussion between the auction house and an expert they contracted to write up the statue before sale in which the expert underscores that it was recently removed from the temple but ultimately suggests they go ahead with the sale because her Cambodian sources say they have no interest in contesting it) and denied that there’s even an applicable law in Cambodian that makes the export of 1,000-year-old Khmer statues illegal.

On Thursday, December 12th, truce was called. Sotheby’s, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa and the federal government have come to an agreement and I’d say it’s a big win for Cambodia, although as so often happens everyone still gets to deny having willfully trafficked in stolen antiquities.

The Belgian woman who had consigned it for sale in 2011 will receive no compensation for the statue from Cambodia, and Sotheby’s has expressed a willingness to pick up the cost of shipping the 500-pound sandstone antiquity to that country within the next 90 days.

At the same time, lawyers from the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan who had been pursuing the statue on Cambodia’s behalf agreed to withdraw allegations that the auction house and the consignor knew of the statue’s disputed provenance before importing it for sale.

The accord said the consignor, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, who had long owned the statue, and Sotheby’s had “voluntarily determined, in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage,” that it should be returned.

Andrew Gully, a spokesman for Sotheby’s, said the auction house was gladdened that “the agreement confirms that Sotheby’s and its client acted properly at all times.”

:lol: Oh yes, ever so properly. At all times. And ever so voluntary too. It just took them two years and a federal court case to volunteer.

Now we’ll see if the last domino falls: the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena which owns Duryodhana’s counterpart, Bhima.


The Dying Gaul in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

One of the most famous masterpieces of Hellenistic sculpture, The Dying Gaul, has taken its first trip abroad since 1816 when it returned to Rome from 20 years’ exile in Paris, a sentence suffered by so much of Italy’s historical patrimony at Napoleon’s grasping hand. It is on view through March 16th, 2014, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., star of its own exhibition, The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome. The sculpture has been beautifully situated in a rotunda modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, underneath a banner with a detail of Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Ancient Rome, a capriccio, aka a fantasy scene in which all of ancient Rome’s greatest art and architecture is on display in a single gallery with The Dying Gaul in the left foreground.

This exhibition is the only time the masterpiece has ever been to the United States and it won’t be traveling to any other museums. If you want to see this incredible portrait of mortally wounded strength and nobility, you have three months to get to D.C.

The Dying Gaul is a 1st or 2nd century A.D. marble copy of what was probably a Hellenistic bronze original made between 230 B.C. and 220 B.C. to celebrate the victory of King Attalus I of Pergamon over the Celtic tribes of Galatia, an area of central Anatolia, now in Turkey. Gauls had immigrated there from Thrace after their invasion of the Balkans in 279 B.C. They had a reputation as fierce warriors and often sold their soldiering services to the squabbling factions of Asia Minor. Attalus’ defeat of them was considered a great victory because of their reputed strength in battle and the theme of defeated Gauls, stoic and powerful to the end, became a popular motif in Hellenistic art for several decades.

Pliny mentions in his Natural History that Epigonus, court sculptor to the Attalid kings of Pergamon, created a group of bronze sculptures of dying Gauls to decorate the terrace of the Temple of Athena Nikephoros in honor of Attalus’ victory. The original Dying Gaul is thought to have been one of them, as is the original of Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife. The Roman copies of both of those pieces were documented for the first time on the November 2nd, 1623, inventory of the Ludovisi collection. The estate of the powerful papal Ludovisi family corresponded with the famed Gardens of Sallust, a property outside of Rome that had once belonged to Julius Caesar and was later purchased by the Roman historian Sallust who made it into a lush garden so beautiful it was confiscated by Roman emperors and maintained for centuries as a public garden.

When the Ludovisi family began building their complex on the grounds in the early 17th century, they dug up Roman sculptures in impressive quantities and even more impressive quality. (See this entry for more about the Ludovisi collection and its painful dispersion in the 19th century.) The Dying Gaul, then thought to be a dying gladiator, was recognized as a masterpiece right away. Artist Ippolito Buzzi restored it with a comparatively light hand, more modest and respectful of the original than many of the other 17th and 18th century restorations. On March 29th, 1737, Pope Clement XII bought The Dying Gaul for 6,000 scudi, a huge amount at the time, and installed it in the Capitoline Museums.

There it remained for 60 years until Napoleon stepped into the picture. By the terms of the Treaty of Tolentino, the 1797 peace treaty between Directory France and the Papal States, all the art French troops had looted became official French property. the treaty also gave French officials the untrammeled right to literally walk into any building in the territory and pick whatever they wanted to send back to France. Napoleon had experts on the scene to ensure Italy’s greatest treasures would become France’s for the duration of his rule. After Napoleon’s final defeat, the Tolentino plunder was returned to Italy.

The timing was perfect for The Dying Gaul to seduce the flocks of Romantic artists and Grand Tourists. Lord Byron wrote about him in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Canto IV, Stanza CXL) just two years after the statue’s return to the Capitoline Museum.

I see before me the Gladiator lie:
He leans upon his hand — his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his droop’d head sinks gradually low –
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,
Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now
The arena swims around him — he is gone,
Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hail’d the wretch who won.

Many literary luminaries followed in his wake. Mark Twain gave The Dying Gaul a rare unsarcastic positive review in Innocents Abroad. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun opens on the sculpture. Henry James called it the “lion of the collection” in The Portrait of a Lady. The Gaul even gets a passing reference in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (bottom of the page here).

Because one of the greatest works of ancient art surviving doesn’t budge unless compelled by terms of sale or at bayonet-point, copies of The Dying Gaul are in museums, institutions of higher learning and private collections all over the world. Smugglerius is my personal favorite. Until his debut at the NGA last Thursday, that was as close as anybody outside of Italy was going to get to seeing him.


Ancient pig-shaped baby bottle found in Puglia

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Seventeen hundred years or so before the Majapahit Empire made the first piggy banks, the Messapii people in the heel of Italy were making baby bottles shaped like pigs. An excavation this May in Manduria, a town about 20 miles east of Taranto in the region of Puglia, unearthed a cut rock tomb painted with ocher, red and blue bands dating to around 4th century B.C. Inside the eight by four-foot tomb were the remains of two adults and approximately 30 funerary artifacts including an iron knife blade, pottery plates, vases, statuettes and three gutti, vessels with narrow necks and small openings from which liquids could be poured slowly, even in drops.

Gutti were used for pouring libations in sacrifices, to oil up bodies before scraping with a strigil and as baby bottles. Two of them were fairly plain, as is customary with gutti, but the third was shaped like an adorable piggy. Discovered completely intact, the piggy guttus has pointy ears and painted on human-like eyes with long, sweet eyelashes outlined in white. The elongated, slender snout is pierced at the end. That’s what the baby nursed from. It served another function too. Inside the pig’s body are small pieces of terracotta that made the pig a rattle once all the milk was finished. Feed the baby, then rattle him to sleep. It’s a clever combination and an extremely rare one.

Despite the presence of two baby bottles, one baby bottle/rattle and two female figurines characteristic of burials of young girls in Messapii graves, no infant remains were found. It’s possible that one of the adults was pregnant when she died and was poignantly buried with the artifacts she’d accumulated in expectation. It’s also possible that an infant was buried there but her delicate bones have disintegrated over time. The tomb is almost certainly familial, in keeping with Messapian custom.

Objects such as a black painted basin and an iron blade of a knife suggest a male burial, while a strong clue for a female burial came from a special Messapian pottery vase called trozzella. Featuring four little wheels at the tops of its handle, versions of the vase are often found in the graves of Messapian women.

“Analysis of the funerary objects and their context suggest that the two burials followed one another in the Hellenistic period, between the end of the fourth and the third-second centuries B.C.,” Alessio said.

This is the second largest Messapian tomb found in Manduria, which is notable because the town was an important city in the Messapii dodecapolis, a confederation of 12 cities which, while ruled by their own individual kings, came together for self-defense or in case of other need. The need arose pretty frequently, thanks to their frequent battles with, among others, the Greek colonists of Tarentum (now Taranto), although they had cordial trading relationships with other cities of Magna Grecia. Messapian fighters were renown for their cavalry and archery. Archidamus III, King of Sparta from 360 B.C. to 338 B.C., felt Messapian strength most keenly when he died at the walls of Manduria while aiding Tarentum in its war against several local Italic tribes.

The Messapii were conquered by Rome in 280 B.C. Their Indo-European language died out and was replaced by Latin and Greek. Inscriptions have survived but the language is still not fully translated.


Large gold fibula and pendants found in Denmark

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Metal detectorist Morten Kris Nielsen was exploring a farmer’s field near Spentrup on the Danish peninsula of Jutland when he found a gold fibula, a brooch used to fasten a cloak. Without even cleaning it, Nielsen brought it directly to archaeologist Benita Clemmensen at the Museum of Jutland. He was sure there was more where that came from, so that same day he returned to the find site and unearthed a second piece of the fibula and two crescent-shaped gold pendants with stylized birds’ heads at each end of the crescents. Museum archaeologists then excavated the spot and found another eight gold pendants, four of them in bird patterns, and a gold ring.

The archaeologists found that this small but extremely rare and valuable hoard was deposited in a bog, probably as a religious sacrifice, in the early 6th century A.D. Because Nielsen was so conscientious in reporting his finds without so much as rinsing them off, museum experts were able to find traces of dissolved glass in some of the many intricate channels of the fibula. There are surviving red semi-precious stones thought to be garnets on the piece, and the remains of a yellowish-green mass which may be glass.

The total gold weight of the hoard is 35 grams which is relatively modest, but the quality of the pieces is thoroughly immodest. The fibula is eight centimeters (just over three inches) long and is made out of a gold sheet wrapped around a clay core. The surface is festooned in tiny gold circles. Even tinier beads of gold like strands of pearls follow the edge of every section of the piece. In the second fragment of the fibula — a circle with stones or glass between spokes — there’s a gold waffle pattern underneath the stone settings that is reminiscent of some of the garnet pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard (see this hilt fitting, for instance).

On the bottom section of the buckle is a bird, outlined in gold with the tail, head, body and beak formed by inset red stones. The eye of the bird is cut into the middle of the head’s stone. Archaeologists think the fibula’s bird and the bird heads on six of the pendants probably represent ravens, important figures in Norse mythology (Odin had a pair named Huginn and Muninn who brought him news of the world every day) that are common motifs on jewelry from this period and later.

According to National Museum of Denmark archaeologist Peter Vang Petersen, only a few large gold fibulae of this type have been found in Denmark. They were made locally out of Roman gold with semi-precious stones imported from Scandinavia and Central Europe. This was high craftsmanship. The woman whose cloak this held together had to have been immensely wealthy and important, and the fact that she was able to sacrifice such riches suggests that she was wealthy beyond the mean of the Spentrup area which has never seen a treasure find like this before.

As for why she might have felt compelled to sacrifice such valuable pieces, it’s because the Norse gods preferred gold, not surprisingly, and when circumstances were grim, that was the kind of sacrifice you’d make. This period, the early sixth century, in the middle of the turbulent Migration Period, saw a great many gold votive deposits. On top of the political upheaval and mass movement of populations, the first half of the sixth century saw a climactic disruption that is recorded by historians from the Byzantine Empire to China to the Middle East to Europe. Probably as the result of a volcanic eruption, in 535-6 there was no summer and the sun’s rays were wan like during an eclipse. Famine, crop failure, freezing rivers followed, an unending winter that was a sure sign to the Norse that Ragnarok, the apocalyptic Twilight of the Gods, was nigh.

The Mosegård Church Hoard, as the gold has been dubbed because of its find site near the church, is on display at the Museum of East Jutland in Randers until December 19th, 2013, after which it will move to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen where it will be part of its Treasure Trove exhibition opening in January.


Mysterious Neolithic wood tridents on display

Friday, December 6th, 2013

Two large Neolithic wood tridents of unknown purpose have gone on display in the Tullie House Museum’s Border Gallery The artifacts were donated to the Carlisle museum, which is currently also hosting the spectacular Crosby-Garret Helmet, by the Cumbria County Council which owned the land on which they were found. The museum is delighted by the donation as it would have been hard pressed to afford them on the open market.

The tridents were discovered in 2009 during an archaeological survey in advance of the construction of the Carlisle Northern Development Route. They found such an incredible bonanza of Neolithic and Mesolithic artifacts that the excavation intended to last three mounts wound up taking three years to complete. Mesolithic flints alone were found in staggering numbers: 1,500 buckets of earth were sieved every week, a total of 270,000 liters of soil, in which around 314,000 stone pieces were discovered, including used tools and waste flakes. The site, an island between two paleochannels, was a major production center for stone tools in the late Mesolithic.

Its location in the flood plain of the River Eden also saw to the preservation of organic materials, thanks to the archaeologists’ best friend (because of how it preserves perishable remains) and worst enemy (because of the painful digging conditions requiring constant pumping and rubber trousers): waterlogged soil. Among many wooden artifacts retrieved from the watery pit were the two tridents. Carved out of a single piece of mature oak (the three was approximately 300 years old when felled), the tridents are two meters (six feet) long and have three straight-sided tines, although one tine is broken off on the most complete example and two tines are missing altogether on the other.

Radiocarbon dating of the sapwood at the outer edges of the trident revealed they date to between 3,900 and 3,300 B.C. Whoever carved those tridents from a mature hardwood only had stone tools to do the job. They must have been extremely difficult pieces to craft. Judging from the placement of the complete trident — the broken tine was carefully tucked beneath it — they weren’t simply discarded.

Unlike modern pitchforks, where the tines split from the haft is a horizontal step of sorts which adds to the mystery of what these tridents were used for. They were too heavy and blunt for use as fishing spears or digging forks. The tines could have been wrapped in skins and used as paddles, but this too is a far from ideal design for the task. Also, there’s also no evidence of use, no wear patterns, no chips or gouges.

There are only six of these rare pieces known to exist, and the other four were all discovered in the 19th century, two in Cumbria after the draining of Ehenside Tarn in the 19th century (find published in 1873), the other two in a peat bog in County Armargh, Ireland (published in 1857). Now that two more have been found in Cumbria again, archaeologists are wondering if there was some trade or cultural link between the Neolithic Cumbrians and the people in Neolithic Northern Ireland.

Andrew Mackay, Head of Collections & Programming at Tullie House said: “These tridents are so rare that they of national importance so it is a great thrill to have them available to show to the visitors of Tullie House. We are very keen to canvass opinion on what they might be so I’d like to encourage everyone to come and see them and let us know what they think.”

For more about the excavation and to browse tons of pictures of the finds, see Oxford Archaeology North’s fantastic website about the project.


Jupiter sculpture donated to Cambridge museum

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

A limestone head of Jupiter unearthed at the Earith quarry near Colne Fen in Cambridgeshire, eastern England, has been donated to Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The sculpture dates to between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. and was discovered during 10 years of excavations (1997 – 2007) done by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. It was donated to the museum by Hanson Aggregates, the owners of the quarry, and will go on display starting December 10th.

The sculpture’s rough appearance belies its historical significance. It is considered one of the finest Roman sculptures ever discovered in East Anglia.

Imogen Gunn, 33, collections manager for archaeology at the museum, said: “There’s a relatively small corpus of Roman sculpture from this area and this is definitely one of the best.

“And it’s always nice to be able to display things that are found locally – it always grabs people.”

Carved out of non-local limestone from Upwell in Norfolk, this Jupiter was once part of a larger monument. You can see a pair of paws perched above the cornice. Experts believe there was a lion, griffin or sphinx there once, but extensive excavation of the find site recovered no further fragments of the piece that might illuminate its full scope. That suggests the Jupiter section was brought to the area after it had already been separated from the rest of the monument.

Even as a fragment it would have been an expensive piece. It was probably reused as a funerary monument at The Camp Ground, telegraphing the wealth and importance of the deceased. Skeletal remains were discovered close by, but there’s no way of knowing if they were associated with the Earith Jupiter.

It was discovered at a site called The Camp Ground, in Roman times an inland port on the Car Dyke canal system with a settlement of 50 to 200 people on the edge of the marshy Fens. This was a large village for a Fenland community, probably a market center where people from neighboring farms came to sell, buy and trade their produce and stock. Because the canal system gave them access to the rest of the country and, via its link to the sea, lands foreign as well, a Norfolk limestone carving could easily, albeit not cheaply, have made its way to Earith over water.

On an unrelated note, museum volunteers made an amusing discovery while going through a collection of more than 1,000 animal bones found in a fish pond in the nearby town of St Neots in 1961. One of the bones, a bovine shoulder blade dating to the 16th century, had “I absolutely hate bones!” scribbled on it in marker along with an irate stick figure with a beehive hairdo and a skirt stamping her feet and making a hand gesture that looks distinctly like flipping the bird.

Ms Gunn said: “We have more than 1,000 bones from this dig. They would all have to be washed and marked with a site number and site code. There’s quite a lot of admin. You can see how that would start to get very boring. I’ve certainly felt that way, but I’ve never scribbled it on to a bone!” [...]

Ms Gunn added: “This is now the most interesting thing about these bones. It adds to their story.”