Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Longhouse, Anglo-Saxon coin found at destroyed Pictish fort

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Burghead Fort near the town of Lossiemouth in Moray, northeastern Scotland, was a major power center in the early Pictish kingdom of Fortriu. Between 6th and 9th centuries, the promontory fort at the site of the modern town of Burghead dominated the region. It was the largest of its time, three times larger than any other fort in Scotland. It is also the oldest known Pictish fort.

Its true origin and great historical significance wasn’t understood in the early 19th century. The fort was believed to be Roman, “the Ultima Ptoroton of Richard of Cirencester and Alta Castra of Ptolemy,” as Major-General William Roy labelled it in his drawing of the floor plan and sections of what was left of the fort in 1793. You might think that its purported Roman origin and association with the 2nd century writer Ptolemy who was believed to have described it in his Geography would be sufficient to ensure some degree of preservation, but you would be wrong. More than half of the fort’s surviving remains were destroyed when the town of Burghead was built between 1805 and 1809.

Burghead Bull, British Museum. Photo by Ealdgyth.The orgy of destruction was entirely undeterred by the exceptional discovery of as many as 30 symbol stones engraved with realistic line art of bulls. Now known to be rare Pictish stones, most of them were casually reused as construction materials in the quay wall of the new harbour and are considered lost. Today only six of the Burghead Bulls survive, two in the Burghead visitor centre, the rest in the Elgin Museum, the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum. All that’s left of the Pictish fort above ground are some lengths of the earth and rubble inner ramparts and a snippet of one of the outer ramparts on the southern side. A subterranean ritual well in a rock-cut chamber discovered during utilities work in 1809 is the most intact remnant of the fort.

Archaeological digs at Burghead began in the late 19th century (less than a hundred years from “who cares?” obliteration to desperately seeking antiquity). They usually focused on the perimeter of the structure — the inner and outer ramparts, the defensive wall — and while the occasional artifact was found, the fort was generally considered to have been gutted beyond recovery by the construction of the town and harbour.

University of Aberdeen archaeologists have been excavating the site since 2015 and this season has seen remarkable discoveries: evidence of a Pictish longhouse and a late 9th century Anglo-Saxon coin of Alfred the Great. Pictish architectural remains are rare and there are major lacunae in our understanding of Pictish buildings. The longhouse gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to study the Picts’ living spaces within a great fort. The coin not only helped establish the dates for the occupation of the longhouse, but it is from a key transitional period when Viking raiders began savaging Pictish territories and would ultimately bring about the demise of Pictish kingdoms.

Dr Gordon Noble, Head of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, said: “The assumption has always been that there was nothing left at Burghead; that it was all trashed in the 19th century but nobody’s really looked at the interior to see if there’s anything that survives inside the fort.

“But beneath the 19th century debris, we have started to find significant Pictish remains. We appear to have found a Pictish longhouse. This is important because Burghead is likely to have been one of the key royal centres of Northern Pictland and understanding the nature of settlement within the fort is key to understanding how power was materialised within these important fortified sites.

“There is a lovely stone-built hearth in one end of the building and the Anglo-Saxon coin shows the building dates towards the end of the use of the fort based on previous dating. The coin is also interesting as it shows that the fort occupants were able to tap into long-distance trade networks. The coin is also pierced, perhaps for wearing; it shows that the occupants of the fort in this non-monetary economy literally wore their wealth.

“Overall these findings suggest that there is still valuable information that can be recovered from Burghead which would tell us more about this society at a significant time for northern Scotland – just as Norse settlers were consolidating their power in Shetland and Orkney and launching attacks on mainland Scotland.”

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New imaging approach reveals hidden text from two eras

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

In the Middle Ages, old manuscripts were recycled for their valuable vellum and parchment pages. The writing was washed or scrubbed off and the leaves filling with new content. Because so many ancient works have been lost, scholars have for centuries attempted to recover the original texts from these medieval palimpsests, often using caustic materials that damaged the pages in the long term. Nowadays researchers have much better options thanks largely to a panoply of imaging technologies that have been a godsend to the study of palimpsests, revealing erased and overwritten text that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Synchrotron imaging is better than Superman because it can see through lead boxes.

Some of the recycled parchments pose greater challenges than others. With the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the 15th century, the demand for bookmaking materials soared. Not only were medieval manuscripts cannibalized for their pages, but the bindings were reused to bind newly printed books. This was a common practice well into the 18th century, so there are a lot of old printed books out there with fragments of medieval and ancient texts hidden in the binding. Scholars knew there might be literary treasures in there, but were stumped by the difficulty of accessing and reading binding materials.

Now researchers at Northwestern University have made a breakthrough. It was a book from the university library’s collection that inspired the new approach. It’s an edition of the Works and Days by the Greek poet Hesiod that was printed in Venice in 1537. Northwestern acquired it in 1870 and out of the 30 known surviving copies of the edition, this is the only one that still has its original slotted parchment binding, a widely used technique in Venice from 1490 to 1670 in which slots were cut into the binding parchment to match the shape of the book spine.

Slotted parchment bindings often used recycled parchments. The ink was usually removed for aesthetic purposes, to make the outside surface of the parchment a uniform color. In this particular book, the ink on the interior parchment surface was not removed. Iron gall ink is acidic and over time, speeds up the oxidation and decay of the parchment.

The Northwestern librarians noticed the slotted parchment binding in the Hesiod and realized its significance. They also saw the faintest hint of text on the book board. Researchers from the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies (NU-ACCESS) examined the binding in greater detail and found evidence that the writing on the book board had been removed, likely by the bookbinder, by washing or scraping. His efforts weren’t entirely effective, much to our advantage. Over time the gall ink that wasn’t removed had degraded the parchment and the writing began to re-emerge. NU-ACCESS researchers found two columns of text plus marginalia were very dimly visible through the parchment on the front and back covers of the book.

The writing wasn’t legible with the naked eye, so scientists Marc Walton and Emeline Pouyet turned to imaging, starting with visible light hyperspectral imaging. The writing became a little clearer, but it still couldn’t be read. X-ray fluorescence imaging gave the team new information about the chemical composition of the ink, but again, it wasn’t able to bring the ancient text out of hiding. They were going to need a bigger boat, to paraphrase Jaws, and the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) was that boat.

[T]he bright x-ray source and fast detection system allowed for a full imaging of the main text and marginalia comments in the entire bookbinding. When the researchers sent the more clearly imaged writing to [Northwestern history and religion professor Richard] Kieckhefer, he immediately recognized it as sixth-century Roman Law code [the Institutes Justinian], with interpretive notes referring to the Canon Law written in the margins.

Walton and Pouyet hypothesize that the parchment originally might have been used in a university setting where Roman Law was studied as a basis for understanding Canon Law, which was a common practice in the Middle Ages. The legal writing was then possibly covered and recycled because it was outdated as society had already struck down the Roman laws to implement church code.

It was an exciting find, but the NU-ACCESS team had greater ambitions. Synchrotrons aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, and most researchers don’t have access to the powerful (and expensive) equipment. Even if they do, rare old books in delicate condition can’t always be shipped to a synchrotron facility. For conservation reasons, they often can’t be shipped anywhere at all. Walton and Pouyet turned to Northwestern’s computer scientists to seek a cheaper, more readily available technology that would be able to read challenging palimpsest texts trapped in bookbindings.

“There is a vast number of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum, and each wavelength has its advantages and disadvantages,” said [Aggelos] Katsaggelos, the Joseph Cummings Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Some of them can penetrate deeper into the specimen, some of them have better resolution, and so on.”

Using a machine-learning algorithm developed by his team, Katsaggelos discovered that not one imaging technique but a fusion of two would yield the best results. His team combined visible hyperspectral imaging, which includes wavelengths within the visible light spectrum to provide high spatial resolution, with x-ray fluorescence imaging, which provides high intensity resolution. The algorithm informed the researchers of the relative contribution of each modality to produce the best image.

“By combining the two modalities, we had the advantages of each,” Katsaggelos said. “We were able to read successfully what was inside the cover of the book.”

Katsaggelos’ data fusion image was so clear that it rivaled an image of the main text produced by the powerful x-ray beams at CHESS.

Walton and Pouyet plan to take this show on the road. They want to examine books in museums and other institutions using the combination of hyperspectral imaging and x-ray fluorescence to read hidden texts on pages and bindings. You can read the team’s publication of their results in the journal Analytica Chimica Acta here.

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Smiley found painted on 3,700-year-old pitcher

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

A team of Turkish and Italian archaeologists have discovered what may be the first known smiley face in the ancient city of Karkemish in Turkey’s southeastern province of Gaziantep near the border with Syria. The terminally cheery curved line topped by two dots was painted on the side of pitcher around 3,700 years ago.

“The smiling face is undoubtedly there (there are no other traces of painting on the flask) and has no parallels in ancient ceramic art of the area,” [excavation leader Dr. Nicolo Marchetti of Bologna University] said. […]

The unusual pitcher in question was originally off-white in colour and features a short thin neck, wide body and small handle. Found in a burial chamber, it was used for a sweet sherbet-like drink, and dates back to 1,700 BC.

Archaeologists only realised the smile was there when the pot was taken to a lab for restoration work, Turkish news agency Anadolou reported.

Occupied from the 6th millennium B.C. until it was abandoned in the late Middle Ages, the remains of Karkemish were first discovered and excavated in the late 19th century. Some illustrious figures — T.E. Lawrence, Leonard Woolley, Gertrude Bell — participated in later digs before and after World I. Even with this long history of archaeological exploration, the site still had much to reveal. The joint Turkey and Italian team has been excavating Karkemish every year since 2011. The smiley pitcher was found this season, which began on May 2nd, and it was not the only important discovery.

The team also unearthed 250 bullae, clay tokens impressed with seals that would be attached to legal and commercial documents as proof identity and authenticity. The seals were found in the late Bronze Age layer and date to the Hittite Empire in the 13th century B.C. when Karkemish was the seat of the Hittite viceroy who controlled the entire region. Among the 250 bullae are the seals of some of the highest ranking individuals in the Hittite administration of the city, most notably that of Taya or Tahe, prince and “charioteer of the goddess Kubaba.” Researchers are excited by the great number of bullae recovered because they hope the seals will reveal new information about the people, trade and administrative systems of Karkemish during its most prosperous period.

Another exceptional find made in the same area of the city is a large basalt relief of two rampant griffons. It was carved at the end of the 10th century B.C. during the reign of the Neo-Hittite king Katuwa who was better known for his construction and sculptural endeavors than his prowess on the battlefield. The griffon relief is believed to be one of a pair with a relief of a winged bull discovered during last year’s excavation. Archaeologists found significant architectural remains as well, including the remains of a massive fortress and a grain silo, both dating to the end of the Neo-Assyrian period, around 1100 B.C.

Seven season of digs will soon come to a culmination when the site is opened to the public for the first time next year. Karkemish is in a militarily sensitive area and access has long been restricted. The Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism announced earlier this month that on May 12th, 2018, the site will open its doors as the Karkemish Ancient City Archaeological Park. The smiley jug will go on display at the nearby Gaziantep Museum of Archaeology.

There is a whole new sense of urgency and meaning behind the excavations and the upcoming archaeological park. On the Syrian side of the border, the civil war has taken an unbearably onerous toll on its rich ancient history. While some of the most precious and beautiful archaeological remains in the world have been brutalized by ISIS and other belligerents in this quagmire from hell, excavation and conservation of ancient material culture has continued undeterred just over the border in Turkey.

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Britain’s first Roman fleet diploma goes on display

Friday, July 21st, 2017

The first complete Roman fleet diploma ever found in Britain has gone on display at Durham University’s Museum of Archaeology. The inscribed copper alloy plaques record the rights granted an honorably discharged sailor after many years of loyal service. The recipient of the fleet diploma, one Tigernos, is Britain’s first named sailor.

Roman Military Diplomas were the physical proof of rights granted to non-citizen soldiers to mark their honourable discharge on retirement after 26 years of service. This diploma was issued by the emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 138-191) to Tigernos, a native of Lanchester, Co. Durham, in around AD 150. The diploma granted him and his descendants Roman citizenship and the legal right of marriage. To earn the diploma he had served in the Classis Germanica -the Roman fleet in Germany, most likely for 26 years, before being honourably discharged on his retirement.

It was discovered in February of last year by metal detectorist Mark Houston near Longovicium, the Roman fort in Lanchester, County Durham. Houston found the plates about eight inches below the surface in a spot where his detector had signalled loud and clear. He saw the tell-tale green of copper and cleaned around it, revealing a small stack of copper plates. He had no idea what it was at first, or even that it was ancient. He thought it might be the remains of a motorcycle battery or some other old piece of machinery.

So Houston dug them up, took them home and cleaned them. It was only when he put them on the window sill where the sunlight streamed over them that he saw there were letters engraved on the copper sheets. He took a closer look through a magnifying glass and realized it was Latin. Understanding that what he thought were old motorcycle parts could be ancient artifacts, Mark Houston contacted the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and reported his discovery. PAS experts and Dr. Roger Tomlin from Oxford University have been studying and conserving it ever since.

The thin sheets of copper alloy were originally two rectangular plates stitched together by metal wires threaded through holes in the plates. Over time, the two rectangles corroded and broke into eight fragments, so some areas of the inscription are damaged, missing or illegible. Researchers are still working out as much of the inscription as they can, but what they’ve already been about to transcribe and translate paints a detailed picture, listing names of military cohorts, commanders, governors and consuls as well as the recipient and his father.

The Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, son of the deified Hadrianus, grandson of the deified Trajanus conqueror of Parthia, great-grandson of the deified Nerva, pontifex maximus, in his 13th year of tribunician power [150 A.D.], twice acclaimed Imperator, four times consul, father of his country, has granted to the cavalrymen and infantrymen of the Germany Army Dutiful and Loyal (PF) who have served in the 4 alae and 14 cohorts which are called Noricorum, Sulpicia CR, Africorum Veterana, I Thracum, I Flavia Hispanorum, I Latobicorum et Varcianorum, I Pannoniorum et Dalmatarum, II Civium Romanorum (CR), I Raetorum, VI Brittonum PF, II Asturum PF, I Classica PF, III and VI Breucorum, I Lucensium PF, II Varcianorum, VI Raetorum, IV Thracum, and are in Lower Germany under Salvius Iulianus, who have served 25 years, likewise soldiers of the Fleet 26 years, and have been honourably discharged, whose names are written below, Roman citizenship to those who do not have it, and the right of legal marriage with the wives they had when citizenship was given to them, or with those they later marry, but only one each.

The 13th day before the Kalends of December [November 19] in the consulship of Gaius Curtius Justus and Gaius Julius Julianus.

To Velvotigernus son of Magiotigernus, a Briton, ex-private soldier of the German Fleet Dutiful and Loyal which Marcus Ulpius Ulpianus commands.

I love the “only one wife each” stipulation.

There are only 800 Roman fleet diplomas known to exist, and most of them are incomplete because the children of the recipient would break off pieces to use as proof of their citizenship. Because this is the only complete example found in Britain, it is of enormous archaeological and historical import. Even so, the plates fell through a loophole in the UK’s Treasure Act: the only complete Roman fleet diploma ever discovered in Britain is not made of precious metal, therefore it’s not official treasure and the finder can dispose of it as he wishes. This is the same loophole that allowed the spectacular Crosby-Garret helmet to be sold to the highest bidder at auction instead of in a museum. Thankfully in this case the finder agreed to sell the diploma plates to the Museum of Archaeology at Durham University and split the proceeds with the landowner.

As of July 20th, Velvotigernus’ fleet diploma is on permanent display the museum’s Palace Green Library.

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9-year-old boy trips over Stegomastodon tusk

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Nine-year-old Jude Sparks was hiking with his family in the desert of Las Cruces, New Mexico, last November testing walkie-talkies with his younger brothers when he tripped on something and fell. He thought it looked like petrified wood at first, but its shape seemed more animal than plant. Could it be that classic of desert art, the cow skull? That’s what his little brother Hunter thought. Jude’s parents thought it looked more elephant-like. They looked it up when they got home and none of the elephant skulls they found online matched the object Jude had stumbled on, so they emailed a photo of the find to Peter Houde, professor of biology at New Mexico State University (NMSU), in the hope he might be able to identify it.

Houde recognized it at a glance as the fossilized skull of a Stegomastodon, a large elephantine animal that roamed North America in the Pliocene era about five million to 28,000 years before the present. This particular specimen is approximately 1.2 million years old, and even though it’s from one of the more common species of extinct elephants that inhabited the area, as far as Houde knows it’s only the second complete Stegomastodon skull discovered in New Mexico.

Jude had tripped over one of its tusks and faceplanted in front of the lower mandible. He could see the second tusk a little ways away. It was an incredibly fortuitous stumble, because the fossil had only recently been exposed by heavy rains. Had it been exposed to the elements any longer, it would have crumbled to dust. Houde saw to it that the exposed fossils parts — the jaw and both tusks — were removed to NMSU’s Vertebrate Museum for their protection. After securing the permission of the landowner (the exact location of the find is being kept under wraps at his request) and the hardening chemicals necessary to preserve the fossil in situ, Peter Houde and a team of professors and students excavated the rest of the skull this May. The Sparks family was given the opportunity to join in the excavation, which is going to be hard to top as family excursions go.

Houde applauded the Sparks family’s decision to do the right thing in contacting him about their find. He encourages others who might come across fossils to reach out to an expert rather than try to dig it up on their own.

Peter Houde excavates Stegomastodon trunk. Photo by Peter Houde.“As you can imagine, when people find out about these things, they might be tempted to go out there and see what they might find themselves and tear up the land or they might hurt themselves,” Houde said. “To be quite honest, all these fossils from this area are radioactive and especially for children, not something you would want in your home.”

Houde estimates the jaw weighs about 120 pounds and the entire skull as little as a ton. And while the skull may appear to be strong, it is quite delicate.

“The upper part of the skull is deceiving. It’s mostly hollow and the surface of the skull is eggshell thin,” Houde said. “You can imagine an extremely large skull would be very heavy for the animal if it didn’t have air inside it to lighten it up just like our own sinuses. That makes the thing extremely fragile and the only thing holding it together is the sediment surrounding it.

“In fact when the sediments are removed from the sides of them, they start to fall apart immediately and literally fall into tiny, tiny bits. It has to be done carefully by somebody who knows how to go about doing it. It is a very deliberate process that takes a little bit of time.”

The team spent a week excavating the skull, brushing it with the hardening chemicals to make it possible to remove it without damaging the delicate fossil. Once it was fully exposed, the skull was coated with a layer of plaster and reinforced with wood braces for support. It was raised by a tractor onto a flatbed truck and transported to New Mexico State University.

In the NMSU laboratory the skull will be studied, analyzed and reconstructed. The process is a painstaking one and it will likely take years before the complete skull is pieced back together and stabilized so it can be put on public display.

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Rare Roman sarcophagus found in London

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a rare Roman stone sarcophagus at an excavation on Swan Street and Harper Road in Southwark, central London. The coffin dates to the 4th century and was buried inside a mausoleum along the Roman road just outside ancient Londinium. It is filled with soil so archaeologists were not able to determine its contents at a glance, but because the bones of a baby from the same period were found buried next to the sarcophagus, it’s possible it contains the skeletal remains of a mother. There is no evidence at this point of any connection between the infant and the coffin burial.

Contractors Pre-Construct Archaeology were engaged to excavate the property where a court annex and sorting office once stood and on which the charitable organization Trinity House plans to build a new housing complex. Excavations began in January and were almost completed when the sarcophagus was discovered last month. Under the former court annex building, the team discovered a long trench that had been dug by looters hundreds of years ago around the perimeter of the sarcophagus. The lid had been slid open and there’s a large crack in it, likely the calling cards of the same looters who dug the trench.

The grave robbers found the sarcophagus in the post-Medieval period. They broke into it and helped themselves to grave goods. Archaeologists hope the looters limited themselves to stealing the more showily valuable objects — precious metals, fine pottery, jewelry — and left behind things they didn’t care about but archaeologists do. If they didn’t interfere with the human remains, that would be a great archaeological boon. The sarcophagus has been scanned with a metal detector which signalled the presence of metal inside the earth-packed coffin, so there’s almost certainly something in there.

The deceased must have been a very wealthy, high-status individual to receive such an expensive burial. The sarcophagus itself is extremely rare. Only two late Roman sarcophaguses have been found in their original burial context in London in recent memory. Then there’s the location on the main Roman road leading in and out of the city. This was a prestigious spot that would have been reserved for someone of great importance.

Recent archaeological research has shown that this area of Roman Southwark is the focus of ritual activity. We now know that this area forms a complex ritual landscape containing various religious and funerary monuments and a vast dispersed Roman cemetery (sites such as Dickens Square, Lant Street and Trinity Street) incorporating a range of burial practices, often with exotic grave goods sourced from across the Roman Empire. […]

Gillian King, Senior Planner: Archaeology, at Southwark Council, said: “In my long archaeological career I have excavated many hundreds of burials, but this is the first Roman sarcophagus I have ever discovered, still surviving in its original place of deposition. I have seen them in museums, but I think part of me believed that they had probably all been found by now!

“It really is a very special discovery. Personally, I find it really fascinating to contemplate that this area – which we are now so familiar with – was once, during the Roman period, so completely different.”

The sarcophagus and lid were raised on Tuesday and transported to the Hackney archive of the Museum of London where it will be painstakingly excavated in laboratory conditions. Any bones or artifacts found within will be analyzed and tested to confirm the date of the burial.

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Roman domus with mosaic floors found in Auch, France

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

When a landowner digging a foundation for a new home on his property in Auch, southwestern France, discovered ancient architectural remains less than two feet under the surface earlier this year, he reported the find to the authorities. In April, archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) were dispatched to excavate the structure. They unearthed a layer cake of Auch’s rich history, with a luxurious Roman imperial-era domus as the topper.

The property is just a few hundred feet from the forum of the ancient city of Elimberris, a town founded by the Ausci, an Aquitanian tribe, before the arrival of the Romans. After the conquest of Gaul, the city’s name was Latinized to Augusta Auscorum and became one of the 12 main cities of the province that would become Gascony. It prospered in the late imperial era and the wealthy built increasingly expensive villas or expanded and upgraded existing ones. The latter is what happened to the newly discovered domus.

Even when things got scary as imperial support all but disappeared in the early 5th century, Auch still seemed to be doing okay. It was made the capital after the Gascon city of Eauze was razed by the Vandals, in 409 A.D., but these were the twilight days of the Roman Empire and being the regional capital of a place where the elite had already beaten a hasty retreated and abandoned their fancy villas years, perhaps decades, earlier, was a dubious distinction. The fancy villas were stripped for building supplies and otherwise forgotten.

Very little of ancient Auch has been excavated. Most of the archaeological material we have from Gallo-Roman Auch comes from a single major excavation years ago and scattered finds here and there. This discovery has been an exceptional boon to archaeologists because on this one 800 square meter site, they found evidence of the earliest settlements dating to the second half of the 1st century B.C. through the Late Empire.

Its first iteration was comparatively modest. It was private home with earthen walls. In the 1st century A.D., the site shows signs of an acceleration of urbanization under Rome’s influence. The city grew on an organized grid system orientated by the cardinal points of the map. The forum was built in this period, as were a number of top quality private dwellings. The villa was built in the 3rd century and was significantly expanded and altered twice after that.

In was in the early 4th century A.D. that the domus got its greatest refurbishment. Some time around 330 A.D., baths were added to the home. A home bath complex was the mark of high luxury. The baths in this villa were in their own building about 100 feet long and 30 feet wide. There were at least three rooms heated by underfloor hypocausts and the floors were decorated with brightly colored mosaics in a variety of patterns including geometrics (octagons and squares, waves), florals (ivy, laurel and acanthus leaves), tridents, braids and more. While none are extant in their original form, mosaics also decorated the walls. Archaeologists found black, green and red glass tile fragments amidst the floor rubble; that’s all that’s left of the colorful wall mosaics.

Detail of wave pattern. Photo © Jean-Louis Bellurget, Inrap.The mosaics are designed in a style characteristic of the area in the late Empire. The Aquitanian style is well known in ancient country villas from this era, but this domus stands out because it was a city home, not a rural estate. Aquitanian style mosaics are far rarer in urban centers, although they have been found before in Bordeaux and Eauze.

It seems the domus endured the same fate as other elite homes did in this region. It was left to its own devices at the end of the 4th century or beginning of the 5th century, and locals salvaged whatever materials from it they could use. The walls were demolished and their stone taken, the marble floors pulled up, even the stacks of tiles used to raise the subfloor for the hypocaust heating system were taken. The mosaics that weren’t destroyed by the process were damaged. The ruins were quickly forgotten and covered with earth, albeit a remarkable thin layer considering it took more than 1600 years for anybody to find what was left of the domus.

Ivy leaf motif in mosaic. Photo © Jean-Louis Bellurget, Inrap.INRAP is working at lightning speed to excavate and recover as much of the site as they can. They plan to lift the whole mosaic floors. What will happen to the rest of the remains is unclear. The property owner wants them out by September so he can go back to building his thing, invaluable archaeological treasure be damned. Anything left behind could well be destroyed.

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Greek theaters had moveable stages on wheels

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

A paper about a new survey of the 4th century B.C. theater in Messene, Greece, reports that three lines carved in stone next to the stage were track lines used to wheel massive wooden set pieces into place. Researchers from Japan’s Kumamoto University studied the Greek Classical period theater’s stone lines and compared them to similar ones found in theaters built around the same time in the nearby city states of Sparta and Megalopolis. The lines at Messene are 9 to 12 cm (3.5 to 4.7 inches) wide and 3.8 to 5.4 cm (1.5 to 2.1 inches) deep and are almost perfectly level. The grooves are two meters (6.5 feet) apart.

A few years ago, there wasn’t much of a theater left to survey. After six centuries of continuous use, the theater was abandoned in the early 4th century A.D., its marble and stone pilfered for use in local construction. In the early 1990s, excavations began at the site. At first it didn’t look like there was anything left of the theater after so many years of neglect and architectural recycling. There were a few barrier walls visible above ground, but that’s it. Olive groves surrounded the site and thick deposits of earth covered what had once been the orchestra (the circular or horseshoe-shaped space between the audience and the stage where the chorus performed) and the koilon (the bleachers where the audience sat). Archaeologists laboured for more than two decades to excavate every last piece of the theater they could find and restore as much of it as possible. In August of 2013, the theater reopened for the first time in 1,700 years with 2,000 seats, all of them jigsawed together from the scattered ruins.

A large storage room and the three stone lines weren’t discovered until 2007 during a field study by archaeologists from Kumamoto University. They’ve been studying the finds ever since, comparing them with the theaters in Sparta and Megalopolis and attempting to determine what role these structures played in ancient theatrical productions. The Kumamoto University researchers have now published the result of their investigation in Archäologischen Anzeigers, the journal of the German Archaeological Institute.

What was the purpose of these stone rows? In the Hellenistic theater, a one-story building called the “proskenion” was placed on the stage. The Proskenion was used as a stage background and it is thought that actors were also able to speak from its balconies. Behind that was a two story “skene” that was used as both a dressing room and another stage background. In the past, it was thought that the proskenion and the skene were either stone-built and fixed or wooden and wheeled. If they were wheeled, they would have moved as one massive construction along three stone rows. As a result of their investigation, however, the Kumamoto University researcher proposed that the proskenion and skene were separate constructs, each with their own set of wheels, and that there is high possibility that each proskenion and skene was pulled in and out of the storage room on two stone rows respectively.

Proskenion and skene with wooden wheels. Image courtesy Associate Professor Ryuichi Yoshitake.“A large force would have been required to move stage equipment as large as the proskenion and skene,” said Associate Professor Ryuichi Yoshitake who led the research project. “In previous studies, there was a theory that the proskenion and skene were simultaneously moved along just three stone rows, but I think it is more logical that the proskenion and skene each had their own set of two stone rows to move along. I came to this conclusion due to the positions of three stone rows and the fact that it would have been quite difficult to move the heavy proskenion and skene together using a single axle with three wooden wheels.”

Ancient literature makes it clear that that there were rotating stage devices in both Greek and Roman theaters. The newly discovered stone rows and storage rooms at the Messene Theater are important remains that show the likelihood is extremely high that mobile wooden stages existed in the theaters of the Hellenistic period. Future research is expected to clarify the appearance of a wheeled wooden stage like that in Messene and the influence it had on later stage building.

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New cache of Roman writing tablets found at Vindolanda

Monday, July 10th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the Roman fort of Vindolanda have discovered a new cache of 25 Roman writing tablets. The wood tablets were unearthed in a sodden trench (it’s been raining a lot up there) on June 22nd in a small section less than 10 feet long. These invaluable records of daily life in a Roman fort on the far northern border of the empire date to the end of the 1st century A.D., which means they were written no later than 15 years after the first version of the fort was built.

Many of them less than two millimetres thick, simple slivers of birch rather than the notebook-like rectangles you might think of when you see the word “tablet,” this incredibly rare group of letters, lists, official and private correspondence were likely part of an archive that was lost or unceremoniously discarded, albeit in a weird way. The tablets weren’t grouped together as they would be if they’d be enclosed in a bag or dumped in one spot. They were found spaced out along the trench at regular intervals. The archaeological team speculates that they may have fallen out of a bag with a hole in the corner, or else someone took the time to remove individual tablets and toss them into the rubble of a foundation layer every other step.

Vindolanda was a Roman auxiliary fort and associated vicus (an independent civilian settlement) in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Multiple iterations of the fort were built starting with simple wood and turf structures in the late 1st century through to the stone forts of the late 2nd and early 3rd century. That last stone fort was repaired and occupied in fits and starts until the end of the 4th century in the twilight years of Roman Britain.

That long, varied record of occupation was preserved for nigh on 2,000 years by the site’s anaerobic soil. Organic materials that would normally decay survived in the waterlogged mud of Vindolanda in exceptional condition, among them wood plumbing pipes, an inscribed barrel stave, the only known Roman wooden toilet seat, leather shoes by the thousands and of course, the artifacts voted the UK’s top archaeological treasure by British Museum curators, more than 1,700 fragmentary and complete wooden writing tablets.

Ever since the first writing tablets were discovered at Vindolanda in 1973, individual tablets have been found during the ongoing excavations. One small but important fragment with four lines of ink writing clearly visible to the naked eye (many tablets have no visible ink remaining and can only be deciphered using infrared photography) was just unearthed on June 15th. It dates to between 92 and 105 A.D. Not exactly a writing tablet because there is no ink or lettering on the surface, but just five days later archaeologists found a wooden stylus tablet that once held a wax layer on which letters would be written.

A cache of writing tablets is a much different and rarer animal, however, even in the miraculously soggy soil of Vindolanda. The last time a tablet hoard was found was in 1992 and it was massive, containing hundreds of writing tablets. This batch is far more modest in size, but it has some singularly important features.

As the archaeological team, carefully and painstakingly extracted the delicate pieces of wood from the earth they were delighted to see some of the letters were complete and others had partial or whole confronting pages. The confronting tablets, where the pages are protected by the back of the adjoining pages, are the most exceptional discoveries as they provide the greatest chance of the ink writing being preserved.

Dr Andrew Birley, CEO of the Vindolanda Trust and Director of Excavations spoke about the day the tablets were recovered “What an incredible day, truly exceptional. You can never take these things for granted as the anaerobic conditions needed for their survival are very precise.

Complete confronting oak writing tablets. Photo courtesy The Vindolanda Trust.I was fortunate enough to be involved when my father, Dr Robin Birley, excavated a bonfire site of Vindolanda tablets in 1992 and I had hoped, but never truly expected, that the day might come when we would find another hoard of such well preserved documents again during a day on our excavations.

I am sure that the archaeological staff, students and volunteers who took part on this excavation will always remember the incredible excitement as the first document was recognised in the trench and carefully lifted out. It was half a confronting tablet, two pages stuck together with the tell-tale tie holes and V notches at the top of the pages. The crowd of visitors who gathered at the edge of the excavation fences were also fascinated to see tablet after tablet being liberated from a deep trench several metres down”.

Like the fragment discovered the week before the cache, several of the writing tablets in the group have readable ink. This is immensely exciting to archaeologists because they don’t have to wait for the painstaking process of conservation followed by infrared photography before they can even attempt to decipher the spikey Latin cursive. The oak confronting tablet is not legible at the moment because oak darkens over time much more than birch, but the team is optimistic there may be sufficient ink on the surface to be detected by infrared imaging.

Some of the names in the letters have been deciphered already because they’re known from previously deciphered tablets. One character named Masclus makes a second appearance after a very memorable first one. In the first letter from Masclus discovered at Vindolanda, he asked his commanding officer to send more beer to his outpost on Hadrian’s Wall. In the tablet discovered last month, Masclus is asking to be granted leave (commeatus), possibly due to a crippling hangover.

Cleaning and conservation of the tablets has already begun — you can’t waste any time when keeping organic archaeological materials from decay once they’ve been exposed to the air — and once they’re clean and stable, the writing tablets will be analysed using infrared photography so the ones with faded ink can be read and translated.

For more about the endlessly fascinating (and endlessly wet) work of the Vindolanda archaeological team, follow Digging Vindolanda, a blog of the seasonal digs by one of the volunteer excavators.

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Graves of very tall Neolithic people found in China

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

They’re being called “giants,” because headlines and hyperbole would be lost without each other, but in fact the late Neolithic skeletal remains discovered by archaeologists in Shandong, eastern China, are more accurately described as having belonged to men of greater than average height. Some of them are very tall even by modern standards, and markedly exceed the current average height for an adult man in Shandong.

Measurements of bones from graves in Shandong Province show the height of at least one man to have reached 1.9 meters [6’3″] with quite a few at 1.8 meters [5’11”] or taller.

“This is just based on the bone structure. If he was a living person, his height would certainly exceed 1.9 meters,” said Fang Hui, head of Shandong University’s school of history and culture.

The average height for an adult man in Shandong in 2015 was 5’9″, which beats the national average by an inch. Indeed, Shandong residents pride themselves on being taller than their compatriots, and have done so for a long time. The philosopher Confucius (551 B.C. – 479 B.C.) was born in what is now Qufu, in southwestern Shandong, and he was reputedly 6’3″.

Archaeologists have been excavating the village of Jiaojia near Jinan City, Shandong Province, since 2016 and have unearthed the remains of an extensive Neolithic settlement including 104 houses, 205 graves and 20 sacrificial pits. The homes were mainly row houses, lines of adjacent dwellings not unlike modern townhouses. They were nicely appointed, too, which separate bedrooms and kitchens, indicating a high standard of living not reserved only for the elite. The settlement dates to around 5,000 years ago, a period when the Jinan City area is thought to have been the most important political and economic center of what is now northern Shandong.

These are the remains of the Longshan Culture, also known as the Black Pottery Culture, which inhabited the middle and lower Yellow River valley from around 3000 to 1900 B.C. Officially named after Mount Longshan in Zhangqiu, a modern town next to the the Chengziya Archaeological Site where the first archaeological finds from this culture were made in 1928, the Longshan Culture is renowned for its exceptional pottery crafts, especially the glossy black pottery that gave the culture its alternative name.

Some of that pottery, not just black but in a prismatic array of brilliant saturated color, was found in the graves of the tall men. Only a few of the 205 graves discovered were so richly adorned with goods. Six of those graves are the largest in size and also contain the remains of the tallest men in the burial ground. Archaeologists believe these were men of high rank and therefore had access to the best diet, hence their impressive heights. There’s also evidence of deliberate damage done to the skulls, leg bones, pottery and jade objects in the six tombs. They were likely inflicted shortly after burial and may be the result of conflict between high-status factions, political one-upsmanship in the form of grave desecration.

By this time agriculture was well-established in the Longshan towns. They grew millet as their primary crop and raised animals, mainly pigs, for food. Bones and teeth from domesticated pigs were found in some of the burials. With steady, varied sources of nutrition, safe, comfortable dwellings and wide access to regional trade, people of the Longshan Culture from this period experienced the kind of growth spurt seen in many different eras across the world when children no longer have to deal with the deprivations that their parents suffered.

So far have only scratched the surface of this exceptional site, and excavations are ongoing.

The range of the Jiaojia site has been enlarged from an initial 240,000 square meters to 1 sq km. Currently, only 2,000 square meters has been excavated.

“Further study and excavation of the site is of great value to our understanding of the origin of culture in east China,” said Zhou Xiaobo, deputy head of Shandong provincial bureau of cultural heritage.

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