Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Roman hair from the Capitoline Museums for Janet Stephens

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

Janet Stephens, intrepid hairdressing archaeologist, was on my mind often as I traipsed through the rooms full of Roman busts in the Capitoline Museums. Her intensive research on Roman hairstyling coming from her perspective as a professional stylist, a unique viewpoint that gave her special insight into an arena most historians know nothing about, led her to fascinating discoveries like that Roman matrons likely had their elaborate braided updos sewn together instead of wearing wigs. She also unravelled the complexity of the seni crines, the characteristic hairstyle of the Vestal Virgins.

When I interviewed her almost six years ago, I asked her what changes she’d like to see in the archaeological community if she had her choice. She replied:

I would love it if all archaeological museums would display their sculptures out in the middle of the room instead of in niches and against walls! And I wish there were mirrors behind every small sculpture displayed in a case.

The Capitoline Museums have not made her dream come true, I regret to report. It’s a damn shame because that mirror idea is brilliant. The good news is that even though the busts are still on shelves up against the walls facing the room, many of the female portraits have been turned just enough that you can see the sides and back of their hair. You might have to crane a bit to do it, but it is now possible to see the business end of the Roman women’s hairstyles and even get a pretty decent picture of several of the most interesting ones. Yes, some Stretch Armstronging is required, but nothing too contortionist for single-jointed, non-rubberized people to handle.

I looked for hair that I couldn’t recall having seen her recreate on her YouTube channel yet and that had some intricate elements to it. Nobody famous, therefore, because Janet has already done quite a few empresses and society leaders. My final choices range in date from the 1st century A.D. through the 4th, and all these nameless Roman ladies have in common are great ornatrices and fly dos.


The last woman’s hair is less complex than some of the others, perhaps, but I found its tiger-striped elegance no less intriguing, so she gets the big embed to show off the fine details.

Simple, but stripey.

All of these busts were spread out in the ancient marbles gallery, keeping company with some of the famous sculptures of antiquity. My last post on the Capitoline Museums will cover the big names too. Stay tuned!

 

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Looted mosaic from Caligula’s barge repatriated

Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

I am devastated to report that my Roman idyll is at an end. I still have at least two more posts I want to write about the wonders I’ve seen, but not today because I’ve been up for what feels like a hundred hours straight and so am going with a new story. It is Rome-related, however.

On Thursday evening, a section of marble opus sectile flooring from a great barge built by the infamous Emperor Caligula was officially returned to Italy. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. confiscated the piece (which was being used as a coffee table in New York City) last month as part of an investigation into antiquities trafficking. The investigation revealed the true origin of the “coffee table” was one of the Ships of Nemi, built around 35 A.D., and that it had been stolen from Italy during World War II. It was made into a table top and acquired by a Park Avenue antiques dealer who kept it for almost five decades without realizing its unique history and inestimable archaeological value.

The Ships of Nemi were the only known examples of Roman ceremonial parade barges, not so much functional ships as massive floating palaces. Caligula’s were decorated with the same luxurious materials and architectural finishes found in an early imperial terrestrial palace: lavish marble inlay floors, statuary, fountains, gardens, heated baths and even a temple to Diana. They were so huge — the largest 73 meters long by 24 meters wide, the smaller 71 x 20 — that they would barely have had any room to maneuver on the surface of the small Lake Nemi. The emperor likely used them as extensions to his lakeside villa, follies harkening back to the pleasure barges of Greece and Egypt of the type enjoyed by his ancestor Marc Anthony during his years at the side of Queen Cleopatra. They may have been used to celebrate the festival of Isidis Navigium, a ritual dedicated to Isis in her role as protector of sailors that took place on March 15th to reopen the navigation season.

After Caligula was assassinated in 41 A.D., the barges were sunk in Lake Nemi and all knowledge of their connection to the emperor was lost. Fishermen pulled up ancient maritime artifacts from the wreck sites for centuries, and their tales of Roman treasure ships wrecked in antiquity lying on the lake bed were widely known in Italy. The first attempts to raise the barges took place in the 15th century when architect Leon Battista Alberti was commissioned by Cardinal Prospero Colonna to recover what was then believed to be a single wreck. Alberti built a floating platform from which he dropped ropes fixed to harpoons. It wasn’t just a failure, it was enormously destructive. The scale of the barges and their depth (about 60 feet below the surface) made getting purchase on the whole structure impossible. The hooks tore up hunks of wood which Alberti studied, learning for the first time that some were sheathed in lead. He also recovered some lead piping whose maker’s marks were erroneously associated with Tiberius and later Trajan, but the project never went any further.

Later attempts to explore the wrecks weren’t salvage operations so much as straight looting expeditions. Pieces of wood were pried off the ships and carved into curios for the tourist trade. Bronze oar locks sculpted into the shape of lions’ heads were sold to antiques collectors. Finally in 1928 a pioneering maritime excavation was initiated to save the Nemi ships from the depredations of time and covetous people. The water level of the lake was lowered to expose the remains of the barges. They looked great, but decay set in immediately as soon as they were exposed to the air. With no means to preserve the delicate wood, experts suspended the project in 1930, resuming only when the government agreed to build a museum on the spot, right over the wrecks. That would keep them safe from the elements.

The Museo delle Navi Romane opened on the shores of Lake Nemi in 1936, a proud Benito Mussolini presiding over the inauguration. Only eight years later, these one-of-a-kind survivals of Roman shipbuilding burned to the ground the night of May 31st, 1944. Allied bombs hit the museum in response to Nazi anti-aircraft artillery. Museum staff also report having seen German troops going through the museum that night with a torch, so it’s possible they burned it down themselves because they sucked so hard. By the time US troops arrived on June 4th, the only artifacts left in the museum were a few of the salvage items recovered from the wrecks before they were raised.

That’s why this coffee table section is so disproportionally important. This one piece of marble mosaic floor is one of only a handful of objects still known to exist from the Nemi Ships.

The antiques dealer, Helen Fioratti, said she and her husband, Nereo Fioratti, a journalist, had bought the mosaic in good faith in the late 1960s from a member of an aristocratic family. The sale was brokered, she said, by an Italian police official famed for his success in recovering artwork looted by the Nazis.

“It was an innocent purchase,” Ms. Fioratti said in an interview. “It was our favorite thing and we had it for 45 years.”

Ms. Fioratti, who owns L’Antiquaire and the Connoisseur, a noted gallery for antiques from Europe on East 73rd Street, said she did not intend to fight the seizure because of the expense and time it would take. Still, she said she believes she has a legitimate claim to ownership. “They ought to give me the legion of honor for not fighting it,” she said.

For her part, Ms. Fioratti said she had no papers proving ownership and she could not remember what her husband had paid for the mosaic. She said he had learned about the piece from a friend, who told him the aristocratic family was looking for a buyer.

When the piece arrived at their Park Avenue home, they paid to have a marble frame attached to the square of flooring and then put it on a pedestal in their living room. Over the years, Ms. Fioratti said, curators who visited had told her they were interested in procuring it for their collections. “I could have made a fortune,” she said.

Pardon me while I roll my eyes as far back as humanly possible. Yes, truly, what a martyr you are for buying an ancient artifact with zero history of ownership and a trumped-up fictional background and then liking it so much you didn’t profiteer off your war loot.

It doesn’t look like she’ll be charged for possession of stolen property at this point, even though that is what the search warrant said the authorities were looking for when they seized the piece.

 

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Nero’s Domus Aurea blew my mind.

Saturday, October 21st, 2017

Technically it qualifies as one of Rome’s hidden gems simply because it is so enormously overshadowed by its neighbor, the Colosseum, which was built on the site of an artificial lake that had provided a lovely prospect to Nero’s massive palace on the Oppian Hill above. It’s weird to think of it as hidden, however, because it was just so insanely huge in its day. Nero took advantage of the Great Fire of 64 A.D. to confiscate a stretch of land in central Rome more than 80 hectares in area.

By the time of his death four years later, the palace almost entirely covered three of the seven hills, and it wasn’t even finished yet. Lavish beyond anything that had been seen before, ingeniously designed to be cross-lit with windows and skylights galore, the palace was really a complex of pavilions linked by grand open spaces that could be used in a myriad of ways. The interior was decorated with exquisite frescoes, marble inlays, mosaics and gilded stucco reliefs that reflected the light to create dazzling optical illusions. It was this play of light and shine that gave the Domus Aurea its name.

Deliberately destroyed by Vespasian (r. 69-79 A.D.) to erase the memory of Nero and his works from Roman history — it was Vespasian who had the lake drained to build the Colosseum as a symbolic return of Nero’s purloined property to the people of Rome — the ruins of the imperial palace were reused by Trajan (r. 98-117 A.D.) as the foundation for a great complex of public baths. He tore the marble inlays, mosaics and frescoes off the walls and floors and reused them in the baths. The damaged walls were rebuilt with tidy bricks and the open spaces filled with soil.

By the time the underground spaces were rediscovered in the 15th century, nobody even remembered that the baths were Trajan’s (they were believed to be the Baths of Titus), and they certainly had no idea that the “grotte” (caves) underneath were part of the long-vanished Golden House. Still, what little was still visible of the Neronian structure had a great influence on Renaissance art. Treasure hunters and artists would lower themselves into the so-called caves and copy the delicate floral and figural frescoes on the walls by torchlight. They then used this newly discovered style in their own artwork when they decorated the walls of Renaissance palazzi. It became known as the grotesque style after the “grotta” in which the originals had been found. (Only centuries later did the term evolve into the grotesque figure as we know it today.)

The Domus Aurea and Trajan’s Baths began to be identified correctly starting in the 18th century, and later excavations would ultimately reveal about 150 identifiable spaces from the Domus. For many years, including all the years I lived in Rome as a child and young adult, whatever was left of Nero’s famous Golden House was closed to visitors. It was structurally unsound, prone to sudden collapses and moisture seepage that sometimes reached the level of outright waterfalls. So when I read that parts of it were reopening for guided tours with a new virtual reality element that recreated how the palace had looked in its heyday, I was more than up for it.

To call this visit one of the highlights of my Romecoming is to vastly understate the case. It. Was. Amazing. Our guide was an archaeologist, deeply knowledgeable and brimming with love and enthusiasm for the incredible site. The site itself …. It’s sublime. Even denuded of all of Nero’s vanities, it still cannot be denied. Huge. Beautiful. Frigidly cold. And the virtual reality element was like the most fantastic rollercoaster Octagonal room skylightride I’ve ever been on. Without a doubt it is the greatest combination of ancient setting and cutting edge technology I have ever had the fortune to witness. It takes you on a tour through time, and even though you’re sitting down the whole time wearing a goofy VR helmet, you feel like you’re moving through time with it. I would do it every day if I could.

This short film shows you some of the 3D reconstructed elements seen in the introductory video (which they awesomely projected on the brick wall of the Trajanic-era entrance hall) and in the VR experience.

This is the money documentary that covers the four years of painstaking restoration done by hundreds of experts that made the reopening of the site possible. You need to use autotranslated closed captioning if you don’t speak Italian, and as usual the translations are pretty bad, but if you can stand to deal with the gibberish, it is worth it for the views of the space alone.

 

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Finally some updates

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

I’ve had the hardest time getting to things that I’ve written about in the past so I could post first-person updates. (The hours and availability of sites and museum exhibitions in Rome and environs are, let’s just say, fluid.) Finally today is the day.

Let’s start with everyone’s highest priority, the cat sanctuary at the Largo di Torre Argentina. When last we saw our feline overlords and their faithful staff, they were under threat of eviction by the city, which had issues with the shelter having been set up in an excavated space under the street that is part of the ancient remains of a temple complex built at various times between the 4th and the 1st centuries B.C. The city had a solid case because the sanctuary was built without a permit on an ancient archaeological site and was therefore illegal. It also had a crap case because it claimed the sanctuary was a health hazard when in fact it has the most exacting sanitation standards I’ve ever heard of for an animal refuge, and that it compromised the ruins which weren’t in any kind of peril whatsoever from the small and discreet structure tucked away in what would otherwise be an empty overhang.

The potential loss of the invaluable services they provide to the city’s feral and abandoned cat population — hundreds of cats have been adopted, unadoptable ones virtually adopted, and tens of thousands of cats in the colony spayed — was devastating to cat lovers and Rome lovers alike. Petitions and phone calls protesting the proposed eviction ensued, but I hadn’t read any follow-up on the outcome.

I can now confirm that not only is the Torre Argentina Roman Cat Sanctuary alive and kicking, they are now the official tenders of the cats, city approved! Check out this sign:

They weren’t open when we stopped by so I couldn’t get inside the sanctuary itself, or inside the sunken temple site at all, for that matter, but I’ll take another stab at it if at all possible. Meanwhile, I was able to get a couple of paparazzi shots of the stars of the show. They were supremely unimpressed by my attempts to get their attention, and really just by my existence in general.

Just a few blocks away, today I got some shots of the ruins of the Athenaeum of Hadrian discovered in Piazza Venezia during construction of Metro Line C in 2009. It’s not like I hadn’t already walked by it about a dozen times already. I just failed to recognize what I was seeing until I drove by it on a bus last night, weirdly enough. When the excavation ended in 2012, the plan was to build the subway stop somewhere nearby in a sewer line and keep the ruins visible to the public. There is no stop yet, but the ruins are visible to the public. Well, sort of. You have to look through a couple of fences. I still managed to sneak the camera in between the links and get a decent pic or two.

Speaking of sneaking the camera in for a decent pic, I went to Piazzale Augusto Imperatore yesterday to check out the restoration work on Augustus’ long-neglected mausoleum, and even covered in scaffolding and construction mess, it still looks hella better than it did in the 80s when it was basically a weed-choked mound with some bricks around the edges/shooting gallery.

It is closed to the public for the duration of the restoration project, all the work done behind a tall barrier, but I got lucky when one of the people working on the site was having a conversation with someone else working on the site and left the gate open for a moment. I rushed in, got a quick shot and hauled ass just before he slammed the gate shut on me. He was even more annoyed by my antics than the cats at Largo Argentina.

I shall close with my favorite update of them all, an entirely fortuitous encounter that went down today at the Capitoline Museums (which have been exceptionally renovated, by the by, but more on that later). There’s a tiny little three-room temporary exhibition going on there right now on reclaimed treasures. The first room has looted artifacts that were recovered by the Carabinieri Art Squad, and guess what was there? The Etruscan black-figure kalpis by the Micali Painter that was pried out of the clutches of the very, very unwilling Toledo Museum of Art in 2012, years after the unique piece was conclusively proven in court to have been stolen.

I didn’t know about the exhibition and I didn’t know the vase, which depicts pirates being turned into dolphins by Dionysus as punishment for their attempted kidnap of the god, would be at the Capitoline. I loved writing that article exposing the whole sordid backstory, I love the kalpis and I loved getting to see it in person, especially since the only pics I could find of it were scans from printed material where you can see the grain of the paper. I had to take it from the side to minimize the horror of flash glare, and yes, I did get yelled at by the guard for taking a prohibited indoor picture. I REGRET NOTHING.

 

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Another hidden gem: Domitian’s Stadium under Piazza Navona

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

You may or may not have learned that the Roman Baroque masterpiece now known as Piazza Navona started out as a stadium built by the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.) in 86 A.D. to celebrate the Certamen Capitolino Iovi, a musical, theatrical and athletic performance dedicated to Jupiter. He modeled the new stadium and the accompanying odeon on the Greek model, but Domitian didn’t simply use the terrain of a natural hill to build the multi-tiered stands into the way the Greeks did with their stadia. He had the financial means, the labour and the technology to create everything from scratch, and boy did he. The site he selected was on the Campus Martius, a level field outside the ancient Servian Wall that had served for centuries as a military training ground when Roman law prohibited the presence of troops inside the official boundary of the city.

Measuring about 275 meters long and 106 meters wide (902 x 348 feet), the stadium had one curved end and one flat end with two long parallel sides. The entrances were in the middle of the curved end (the hemicycle) and the long sides and, like all Roman stadia, had meticulously arranged numbered archways and staircases for optimal traffic flow and access to the bleachers. Archaeologists estimate that it could seat around 30,000 people.

It was used temporarily to host gladiatorial games after a fire disabled the Colosseum in 217 A.D., and some years later it was restored by the Emperor Alexander Severus. We know it was still in use in the 4th century because the historian Amianus Marcellinus mentions it. Shortly thereafter it was abandoned and suffered the same fate as the Circus Maximus, Colosseum and other monumental feats of Roman architecture: it was used as a quarry to supply travertine and brick for new construction. As its building materials were stripped away, its entrances and arches were used as shops and stables.

Within three centuries of Marcellinus’ writing, Romans had already forgotten the very name of the stadium, calling it the Circus Flamineus, then the Circus Alexandri, then the Campus Agonis which was corrupted into Navoni and ultimately Navona, which happens to mean big ship. The coincidence of this linguistic evolution led to the birth of the urban legend that the Piazza Navona was named after the naumachia, sea battles staged in an artificial lake inside the Circus. This never happened. It wasn’t that kind of arena.

Once the Piazza Navona was built, following precisely the shape of its ancient progenitor (which had been extensively built upon by that point), THEN it was flooded. Roman nobles got a big kick out of racing their carriages, some built in the shape of fantastical sea monsters but still pulled by regular terrestrial horses, poor things, through the flooded piazza every year.

With all the despoliation of Domitian’s original structure, including the regular bouts of construction on top of and in the middle of whatever was left, it’s remarkable that any of it was left to rediscover in 1936 when Mussolini’s project to demolish, rebuild and modernize the area’s streets and houses ran into the remains of the cavea, including a large travertine-clad entrance arch from the hemicycle end. A few bits and pieces were known to have survived in the basements of some of the houses along the piazza and under the Church of St. Agnes, but the discoveries from the 30s were more extensive and complete.

Still, nobody gave much of a damn about them. When I was a kid growing up in Rome in the 80s, you could see exactly one part of Domitian’s Stadium from the street, the big entrance arch, and because ground level was so much higher than it had been in imperial times, you really had to look for it at ankle height. That finally changed in 2014 when a new archaeological area opened underneath the Piazza. It is a small, eminently manageable, phenomenally well-lit museum featuring large chunks of Domitian’s Stadium and a handful of statue fragments, inscriptions and building materials discovered during the dig. I didn’t even know it was there until I happened to walk by the sign and followed it like the yellow brick history nerd road it is, and I read about this kind of thing every day. It’s crazy that it’s so little known. It is the only surviving example of a masonry-built stadium outside of the Greek world. People should be freaking out about it.

I mean, the rest rooms alone are worth the price of admission:

 

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Bronze Age burials found at British Army base

Monday, October 16th, 2017

Quick non-Roman one today because I’ve been having upload issues with the large images and I feel a pressing need to collapse in happy exhaustion. Thankfully I planned for just this eventuality and had some backup stories lined up.

A team from Wessex Archaeology, contractors who have been surveying the site of a new soccer field at the Royal School of Artillery at Larkhill Garrisons in Wiltshire, has unearthed three inhumation burials from the Bronze Age. Because the camp is so close to Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, all planned development sites get a thorough archaeological once-over before construction begins. Six trenches were dug into the natural chalk under the site and archaeological materials were found ranging in date from prehistoric to the World War II period.

The three Bronze Age burials are the oldest, although absolute dating of the human skeletal remains has not been done yet to confirm their ages. None of them contain grave goods which would have provided dates, but the types of burials, location and broken pottery found in the fill strongly suggests a Bronze Age origin.

Ruth Panes, the project manager for Wessex Archaeology, said: “Of the three burials, one was an infant and the other has been identified through osteological assessment as a teenage male aged 15 to 17.

“He would have been robust in appearance and his remains contained no obvious signs of pathology. The infant had been placed into a grave in an existing ditch and buried. Over time, the ditch gradually silted up and sealed the grave.

“Prehistoric pottery was found in the ditch fill which sealed the grave, which suggests the burial is also prehistoric. One body was placed in a crouched position and we know such burials typically date between 2400 to 1600 BC.”

Small samples of bone will be extracted from the remains for radiocarbon dating. Further osteological analysis of one of the three who appears to have been buried in a prone position, an unusual posture for an inhumation, should help determine age, sex, any health issues, the person’s lifestyle and perhaps cause of death. Because the positioning of the body of the grave is of particular interest, Wessex Archaeology has 3D scanned the burial in situ and made the model available to the public.

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Gold rings, Roman coin found at Sandby Borg

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the ringfort of Sandby Borg on the Swedish island of Öland have found two gold finger rings and a Roman gold coin. The three pieces were found nestled together next to large red limestone slab in the remains of a house in the southwest corner of the fort. The rings are small and were probably meant to be worn by a woman which is historically significant because so far no identifiably female human remains have been found at Sandby Borg.

The gold pieces were found in House 52, an unusual structure that has been the focus of excavations this year. The form of the house differs from the standard rectangle shapes of the other dwellings in the fort. The northern side of it is rounded and centered in the round area is the red limestone slab. Underneath the slab is layer of sand several inches thick. The floor is not this same sand, so that means it was deliberately packed underneath the slab, perhaps to elevate it for some ritual function. Another unique find made only in House 52 is a group of small glass shards. They are very thin, expensive examples of Roman glass and archaeologists think they were part of a small vessel. It’s the only glass that has been found yet in Sandby Borg.

“We haven’t found treasure like this before, though we have found jewellery deposits,” Helena Victor, the project leader, told The Local. “It’s always exciting to find gold – the team will always remember this day. It’s also important because we now know a lot more about the house where they were found. It seems to have had a special purpose, and it may have been the house of a chieftain or a minor king.” […]

“This discovery could help explain why the massacre took place – maybe these people had too much gold and jewellery. Archaeology is all about finding out about people, with a very long-term perspective, so we can also compare these finds to violence we see nowadays, and use them to discuss for example why humans are so brutal and hateful,” she added.

Unlike in the other houses, House 52 has no animal bones. The remains of an elderly man were found there last year — he had been killed and left over the fireplace — and this season the highly fragmented skull of a child was unearthed on the street just to the south of House 52.

The coin dates to the reign of the Western Emperor Valentinian III. The obverse bears his image while the reverse depicts the emperor with one foot on the head of a barbarian, a common motif in Roman coinage even in the declining years of the Empire when victories were scarce. Valentinian had Hunnic invasions to deal with as well as constant uprisings in Gaul, Hispania and the Germanic provinces.

The first professional archaeological investigation of the site in 2010, spurred by the appearance of two looting pits, discovered precious metals as well, including gilded silver brooches, buckles, rings and pendants. A gold Roman coin, another solidus of Valentinian III struck around 440-455 A.D., was found the next year in the first full excavation.

It was that first season of digs that revealed the ringfort was destroyed in a violent event in the 5th century A.D. during the turbulent Migration Period. Its thick, high walls were breached, the dwellings within razed and the people slaughtered. Since 2011, excavations have discovered the remains of 26 people, mostly adult men.

This video (Swedish narration only) has some neat footage of the discovery and excavation of the rings and coin:

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Colosseum’s vertiginous cheap seats to reopen

Friday, October 13th, 2017

The latest phase of the Colosseum restoration has made possible the reopening of what were once its cheapest seats and are now a vertigo-inducing thrill ride with the best view in town, 40 years after they were last open to the public.

Its structural issues and propensity to drop heavy stone blocks at unpredictable times for decades severely restricted what areas were accessible to the public. After nearly four years of restoration, visitors can already tour the subterranean level, where the gladiator cells were and the wild beasts were kept before the slaughter, the imperial terrace and I level (where the senators sat), the II level (where the knights sat) and the III level, a gallery never before opened to the public where painstaking cleaning revealed crown insignia in white plaster. That was where what we’d now call the middle class got to sit. The IV level was reserved for merchants and assorted petty bourgeoisie. Last and indubitably least were the denizens of the V level, the city’s poor who couldn’t afford a closer view of the carnage or fancy marble seats. (I’d take the wood benches any day, thanks.)

Starting next month, visitors, in guided tours of no more than 25 people at a time (for their own safety), will be able to view the fourth and fifth levels and a connecting hallway that has never been open to visitors. A lucky few got to visit the newly opened floors at a press preview on October 3rd.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini takes in the view. Photo by Andreas Solaro, AFP.Italy’s culture minister Dario Francheschini was on hand to visit the new levels, which during ancient Roman times were the cheap seats, since they were farthest away from the spectacle.

Today, however, the top two levels of the 52-metre (171-foot) high Colosseum offer priceless views of the stadium itself, as well as the nearby Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and the rest of Rome.

The nosebleed seats will be open to the public come November 1st which turns out to be a bit of a bummer for me because guess where your friendly neighborhood history blogger is going. Oh, and at least I’m getting there while access to the Pantheon is still free. They’re planning on charging 3 euros a ticket for the most visited site in the city (an estimated 7.4 million visitors in 2016, a million more than the Colosseum) starting in January.

That’s right. The mothership is calling me home. I’m flying to Rome on Saturday and will be there through next Sunday! Since my days will be crammed full of extremely nerdy pursuits, my blogging will be reduced in terms of length and depth of research, but I still hope to post daily. Due to time constraints and the potential of connectivity contretemps, it will be more of a travelogue/postcards from Rome sort of deal, which I hope will provide you some enjoyment on its own merits. My general plan will be at long last to see in person things I’ve only posted about in the past (newly opened archaeological sites, museum exhibitions, etc.) and write eye-witness updates. With pictures. Lots and lots of big pictures.

All of this is hotel Wi-Fi permitting, of course, although I suppose nowadays it’s a simple matter to find free Wi-Fi out in the wild in Rome. The last time I was there you still needed a school email account and a floppy disk to use this series of tubes they call the internets. I saw a gluten-free pizzeria when I was checking out the historic center on Google Maps the other day. If there is anywhere in the world where you feel the passage of time more keenly than Rome, I don’t know of it. I shall wallow in it.

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Largest Old Kingdom obelisk fragment found in Saqqara

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

A joint French-Swiss archaeological mission has discovered the tip of an obelisk from the Old Kingdom in the necropolis of Saqqara. At more than eight feet in length, the red granite fragment is largest piece of an Old Kingdom obelisk ever found. Archaeologists estimate that the complete obelisk was around 16 feet high. A groove around the top of the obelisk, the pyramidion, indicates that it was originally capped with copper plates or gold foil so it could reflect the sun and shine brightly during the day.

An incomplete inscription on one side of the obelisk identifies it as dedicated to 6th Dynasty Queen Ankhnespepy II (ca. 2350 B.C.), wife and mother of multiple pharaohs.

Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, told Ahram Online that the artefact was found at the eastern side of the queen’s pyramid and funerary complex, which confirms that it was removed from its original location at the entrance of her funerary temple.

“Queens of the 6th dynasty usually had two small obelisks at the entrance to their funerary temple, but this obelisk was found a little far from the entrance of the complex of Ankhnespepy II,” Waziri pointed out, suggesting it may have been dragged away by stonecutters from a later period.

Most of the necropolis was used as a quarry during the New Kingdom and Late Period.

Kneeling Statuette of Pepy I, ca. 2338-2298 B.C.E. Greywacke, alabaster, obsidian, copper, 6 x 1 13/16 x 3 9/16 in. (15.2 x 4.6 x 9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 39.121. Ankhesenpepy II was no stranger to powerful women. Her mother Nebet was the first female vizier in Egyptian history (that we know of, at least), appointed by Pharaoh Pepy I. There would not be a second woman to hold that position until the 26th Dynasty. Both of her daughters married and gave birth to pharaohs. Ankhesenpepy I and II married their mom’s boss Pepy I. After his death, Queen Ankhesenpepy II married her sister’s son Pharaoh Merenre Nemtyemsaf I, which is why she also went by Queen Ankhnesmeryre II. According to the South Saqqara Stone annals which record the reigns of Sixth Dynasty pharaohs, Merenre reigned for about a decade and was succeeded by his and Ankhesenpepy II’s son Pepy II.

Pepy II was a young boy when he acceded the throne, no older than six, and it’s likely that his mother served as regent in the early years of what would become a very, very long reign (spanning at least seven decades and possibly as long as 88 years). A beautiful alabaster statue now in the Brooklyn Museum portrays them both as rulers. The mother, much larger than her boy king son, holds him in her lap. His small size and position on his mother’s lap indicate his youth, but they are formally posed, each looking forward in different directions, and he is adorned and titled with the ornaments of his office. He wears the nemes headdress with the cobra of a pharaoh, and an inscription under his feet declares him “King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Pepy II, beloved of the god Khnum, given all life, like Re, forever.” An inscription under Ankhesenpepy’s feet reads: “Mother of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the god’s daughter, the revered one, beloved of Khnum, Meryre-anhknes.”

A relief of Ankhesenpepy at the ancient site of Wadi Maghareh on the Sinai Peninsula depicts her as the same size as her adult son, a meaningful distinction in Egyptian art. While there are no explicit references to her regency in the archaeological record, this iconography and the realities of a six-year-old pharaoh strongly suggest she was the effective ruler until he came of age, and thereafter continued to hold an elevated place at her son’s court. The size of her funerary pyramid, built during Pepy II’s reign, also attests to her unique importance. It is second only to his in size.

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Copper axe blade found in Switzerland matches Iceman’s

Saturday, October 7th, 2017

Analysis of a copper axe blade found in Switzerland in 2008 has revealed that it matches the copper axe carried by Ötzi the Iceman, the traveler who was felled by an arrow 5,300 years ago in the Ötztal Alps on the border between modern-day Italy and Austria and was frozen in the ice until some German tourists stumbled on him in 1991. Ötzi is Europe’s oldest human mummy and has proven a seemingly endless font of knowledge about Copper Age Europeans, every new approach, study and technology adding more pieces to the puzzle.

Last year, researchers discovered that the Iceman’s copper axe blade was remarkably pure at 99.7% copper and very much to their surprise, was mined in the Colline Metallifere area near Campiglia Marittima in southern Tuscany. There were active copper mines in the Alps at this time, so the expectation was that Ötzi’s gear would have been produced locally. Instead, either the ingot or the manufactured axe head was traded hundreds of miles to the north of where it was mined or made.

The axe blade unearthed at the prehistoric site of Riedmatt, in canton Zug, Switzerland, in 2008 appears to have made much the same trip. Riedmatt was a small pile-dwelling village on the shores of Lake Zug and a rich density of archaeological remains were found in the small space protected by a coffer dam for excavation.

University of Bern researchers sampled the copper and found through Lead Isotope analysis that the material is virtually identical to that in axes used by Neolithic peoples to the south, most notably Ötzi. The copper was mined around Campiglia Marittima and made its way north from there over the Alps. It is half the weight of Otzi’s axe and shorter in length, but it shares the same distinctive trapedoizal shape.

Unlike Ötzi’s blade, which was complete with its yew haft and the leather strips binding the two parts together, the Riedmatt axe is the blade alone. Also unlike Ötzi’s, the Riedmatt blade is almost pristine, excepting a single notch and surface pitting from several thousand years spent underground. The Iceman used his a lot and there is evidence of extensive wear and regularly resharpening on the blade. The Swiss axe may not have ever been hafted; it’s impossible to determine because corrosion has eliminated any traces left on the blade of the joining. The finishing of the blade had been completed at the time of its deposition between 3250 and 3100 B.C. Archaeologists believe it may have been deliberately left on the lakeside as a ritual offering.

“It was a very efficient general-purpose ax, especially proper for woodworking,” said Gishan Schaeren, an archaeologist with the Office for Monuments and Archaeology in the Swiss canton (or state) of Zug. But in addition to chopping trees to build stilted houses, people could use these axs as lethal weapons, Schaeren added. […]

“Mainstream research normally does not consider the possibility of intense contacts between south and north in the Alps” during this time, Schaeren told Live Science in an email.

He thinks Copper Age people should be given more credit.”We have to consider that people who traveled in the Alps had a very profound knowledge of the landscape and its conditions due to their experience with hunting, herding and exploring natural resources in these areas,” he said.

Stronger links to southern Europe, Schaeren added, could explain certain styles of rock art, pottery, burial customs and other phenomena seen in the north.

The find has even larger implications that upend commonly held positions about how metallurgy developed in this area of Switzerland in the 4th millennium B.C. Because local production of copper artifacts seems to have cratered after 3500 B.C. — a smattering of copper objects and crucibles from this time have been found north of the Alps, the frequency increasing again only after around 2600 B.C. — scholars have long thought that the local copper mines must have been exhausted and as a consequence the metal had lost its appeal, perhaps even come to be treated with hostility, by the Neolithic peoples living in the regions between Lake Constance and Lake Zurich.

From the initial results of the study published in this paper (pdf):

However, the copper axe blade of Zug-Riedmatt with its link to metallurgical traditions south of the Alps demonstrates that copper metallurgy at the end of the 4th millennium BC on the Swiss plateau is not to be understood as a very humble end-of-range model of the earlier metallurgy (3800-3500 BC) north of the Alps. In fact, this metallurgy is a new kind derived from the hotspots of metallurgical innovation in the regions of the Tyrrenian-Ligurian coast. This contradicts the theory proposed in Artioli et al. (2017, 9–11), in which the Alps are depicted as “a neat cultural barrier separating distinct metal circuits”. The as yet unpublished isotopic analyses of the copper finds from Lake Biel confirm our theory that Italian ores played a major role in lake-side dwellings north of the Alpine divide (Löffler, in press). The copper axe blade of Zug-Riedmatt accentuates a multitude of contemporaneous cultural bonds to the south, which seemed to be unconnected and had been underestimated until now (Röder & Gross, 2007, 230–236). Furthermore, it challenges the evolutionistic and one-track perceptions of a time that marks a watershed in early metallurgy.

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