Archive for the ‘Ex Cathedra’ Category

Iron Age bucket part of record year for PAS

Friday, March 20th, 2020

The remains of an Iron Age bucket discovered in Lenham, Kent, are a highlight of a record-setting 1,311 treasure finds (pdf) logged by the UK’s Portable Antiquities Scheme in 2019. Discovered by metal detectorist Rick Jones, the elaborate copper-alloy bucket fittings dates to around 50 B.C.; the bucket is part of a hoard with a copper alloy bowl and a clay pot, likely a grave assemblage for a high-status cremation burial.

The bucket was made of wood which has rotted away, leaving the fittings behind. They are unusually decorated. The remains of the copper bands feature pairs of hippocampi (mythical creatures with the forelimbs and heads of horses and fish tails) facing each other. Between them is a four-legged animal on its back. Damage to the body and head make it difficult to identify the animal, but archaeologists think it may be a horse or a deer. Behind the left-facing hippocamp is a bird-like creature with a long hooked beak and sharp curved talons.

The bucket handles are even more ornate. The two fittings feature humanoid heads with large, wide-set eyes, eyebrow ridges that come together and go south to form the bridge of a nose, a wide mouth and combed back hair. Under the chin of one is a straight rectangle, a sort of elongated neck, with a rivet in the middle connecting it to the copper mount. Under the chin of the other is a pyramid of three balls.

The two faces are slightly different: one has dotted decoration along the mouth, brows, hairline and around the back of the neck, whilst the other is plainer with a slimmer jawline.

Close examination of the fittings helps us to understand how the bucket would have been used. The plainer mount appears more worn, and the attachment mechanism has also been repaired, with new holes pierced for reattachment. This was clearly a cherished and much-used object. Buckets like this are usually found in high-status cremation graves, several of which are known in Kent and on the near continent. They probably formed part of a drinking set, used for serving mead, wine or beer at feasts. Perhaps the people buried with these objects hosted such feasts in life, or maybe this was a way for the living to share the funeral feast with them.

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Roman iron smelting plant found in Belgium

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Roman-era iron smelting operation in Ninove, East Flanders, Belgium. These are the first traces of Roman iron production ever found in the region.

The Doorn Nord site is being archaeologically surveyed in advance of construction of a business park. Since the investigation began 18 months ago, the team has unearthed two funerary monuments from the late Neolithic (2500-2000 B.C.) and a smattering of Bronze Age (2000-1000 B.C.) remains, but the densest concentration of ancient material dates to the late 1st and 2nd century A.D. when a Roman settlement grew at the intersection of two roads.

The settlement contains houses, streets and graves and appears to have specialized in metal craft, specifically the smelting of iron ore into iron. Archaeologists are hoping to discover how much ore was produced and what it was used to make.

The greatest number of remains are of more recent extraction: military encampments from the late 17th to the mid-18th centuries. Flanders was a hot potato that changed hands repeatedly (between France and Spain, mainly) during the Nine Years’ War and the War of the Spanish Succession. The camp features small shelters cut into the clay of the ground itself. They had staircases, benches, hearths and fireplaces and could keep six men seated and warm around a fire. No roofs have been found yet and it’s not clear how the smoke was channeled out of the small space.

In June of last year, the city recreated the 17th century encampment so people could hear what it was like to live there from a “soldier’s wife” while sitting in the reconstructed bunkers. More than 4,000 visitors enjoyed the recreations, period crafts, combat demonstrations and archaeology workshops.

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Programming Note

Sunday, February 23rd, 2020

I’m a tad under the weather so there will be no post today, but I shall make it up to you with an incredibly prolix article that I’ve been working on since Monday. It’s one of those things that was going to be a normal report on a find but then I fell into a crazy research wormhole so now it’s huge and still unfinished. Stay tuned!

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Scallop used as Roman makeup case

Saturday, January 25th, 2020

A team of archaeologists has analyzed the contents of a scallop shell found in a 1st c. A.D. grave and found traces of makeup. The scallop shell was discovered in 2000 at an excavation in Mérida, the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania which was founded in 25 B.C. as the veteran colony of Augusta Emerita. The dig unearthed several funerary structures, cremations and inhumations at a site that in Roman times would have been outside the city’s northeast gate on the road to Colonia Metellinensis (modern-day Medellín).

Six burials were excavated. One of them was a rectangular pit dug out of the rock in which the remains of an individual were cremated. Within the pit archaeologists found fill generated by the combustion of the funerary pyre — cremated bone, charcoal and fragments of ceramics, iron nails and tacks from the funeral bed. On top of this layer were grave goods, placed around the perimeter of the pit after the fire had gone out, including two ceramic vessels of local manufacture dating to the second half of the 1st century, a fine blue glass vase with muscle shell decoration, four small glass unguentaria and a complete Pecten maximus shell, its two halves sealed by a hinge.

About 4 inches long and wide, both halves of the shell were in good condition. Two holes were pierced through the flat side with matching ones on the convex side. A metallic wire would have been run through them and tied together to keep the shells closed and protect the contents. Inside the scallop was soil that had filled the cinerary pit, a fragment of silver thread and a small oblong ball of bright pink hue distinct against the brown earth.

That pink ball indicated the scallop shell had been transformed into a pyxis, the ancient Greek name for a vessel,  typically cylindrical in shape, used to hold cosmetics. Thus researchers have dubbed it a “bivalve malacological pyxis,” which has now vaulted into the top bracket of my favorite phrases of all time. (In related how-did-I-live-this-long-before-hearing-this news, the two sides of a scallop shell are called valves, hence “bivalves.”)

Shells were strongly associated with women going back to prehistory, the shell serving as a metaphor for female sex organ, a metaphor still in active use in numerous languages. There are examples of shells being used to hold cosmetics going back to 2500 B.C. Ur, and the trend continued in the Roman era, with seashells and shell-shaped cosmetic boxes made of amber, bone, glass or precious metals found at sites in Italy and Spain.

Using a combination of X-ray diffraction (XRD),  electron microscopy and chromatographic analysis, researchers detected no dyes or mineral pigments (red ocher, vermillion), nor was any mineral substrate in which a dye could have been fixed. It was largely composed of granite lacquer mixed with Rubia tinctorum pigment, color derived from the rose madder plant, and fixed with cold alum. This is an unusual recipe for Roman maquillage, and produces a shade that is much more pink than the orangey-red shades seen in mineral pigments.

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Cornplanter’s pipe tomahawk returned to Seneca Nation

Sunday, January 12th, 2020

The pipe tomahawk given by George Washington as a diplomatic gift to Seneca chief Cornplanter in 1792, has been on loan to the Seneca Nation since March of last year. It was in the collection of the New York State Museum in Albany since 1851 when it was donated by Seneca statesman, US Army lieutant colonel, aide to Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War and the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ely Samuel Parker, only to disappear under circumstances never explained sometime between 1947 and 1950.

It spent the next seven decades being sold by private collectors to other private collectors on the black market. The last one of them, a woman in the Northwest, bought it for $75,000. In April 2018, she had her lawyers contact the museum to report her acquisition of an artifact that might belong to them. With the law firm acting as intermediary, the unnamed collector offered to return the pipe tomahawk to its legitimate owner. The museum received it in June 2018 and it went on display in the Albany museum’s main lobby on July 17th. The exhibition ran through December 17th.

Disappointed by violated treaties and broken promises, Cornplanter destroyed most of the gifts he had received from the US government. He died in 1836 and there is no record of what happened to the rare surviving pipe tomahawk until Parker’s donation. So when Cornplanter’s pipe tomahawk was loaned to the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in the Seneca Nation’s Allegany Territory in March 2019, that was the object’s first return to Seneca territory since at least 1851.

Seneca-Iroquois National Museum chairman Rick Jemison, director David L. George-Shongo Jr. and Seneca Nation president Rickey L. Armstrong Sr. argued that the tomahawk should stay with the Seneca as it is an important and very rare belonging of one of their greatest luminaries as well as material evidence of the earliest connections between the Senecas and the United States government. The New York State Museum was not persuaded at the time. Apparently the collector who had bought the stolen artifact and gave it to the museum stipulated that it must remain part of the museum’s the permanent collection.

I’m not sure what kind of legal force that requirement could have given the “donor” had no clear title to the tomahawk. Surely the legal owner was the New York State Museum. The donation, it seems to me, was a formality to effectuate the returned of trafficked goods.

Whatever the contractual mechanisms of the donation, they’re moot now.  The museum has had a change of perspective since last year and on Thursday, January 9th, the New York State Museum and the Seneca Nation announced that ownership of Cornplanter’s pipe tomahawk has been officially transferred to the Seneca Nation.

“In Seneca history, Cornplanter stands among our greatest and most respected leaders,” said Seneca Nation President Rickey L. Armstrong, Sr. “George Washington originally presented this pipe tomahawk to Cornplanter as a sign of respect, friendship and recognition of our sovereignty. Now, this piece of our great leader’s remarkable legacy can finally – and forever – remain on Seneca land where it belongs.”

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Prototype of iconic red telephone box gets listing upgrade

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

The first of the iconic red telephone boxes has gotten an upgrade in its protection listing from Grade II (of special interests) to Grade II* (particularly important building of more than special interest).

Heritage Minister Helen Whately said:

“The red telephone box is an internationally famous British icon and I am delighted that we are able to protect the first of its kind.

In an increasingly digital world, it is important to preserve structures – like the K2 prototype phone box – that have played a part in our nation’s industrial story.”

The General Post Office’s first public telephone box, the concrete Kiosk No. 1 (K1), introduced in 1921, was rejected by London’s local councils, so in 1924 the Royal Fine Arts Commission asked architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and two other highly respected architects (Sir Robert Lorimer and Sir John Burnet) to submit designs for a new and improved phone kiosk. Five prototypes were manufactured and displayed outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar.

Scott, a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, drew inspiration from the domed canopy of the tomb Soane designed for his beloved and much-lamented wife Eliza in the churchyard of St. Pancras Old Church, London. The prototype with its curved dome was made of timber. After judging the K2 prototype was moved to Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy, where it remains to this day.

In 1925, Scott’s design for the prototype K2 (Kiosk No.2) telephone box was chosen as the “most suitable for erection in busy thoroughfares of large towns.” Scott had planned for the finished booths to be made of steel with blue-green interior. The General Post Office decided to go with cast iron painted red.

After the successful competition, the first cast iron K2 was installed in London in 1926, with more than 1,700 appearing across the city over the course of the next decade. Only a small number were placed outside London and just over 200 K2s survive today. The K2 was replaced in 1935 by the streamlined, more compact and cost-effective K6 model which was also designed by Scott and is the most common red telephone box still in existence today.

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Palaiologos signet ring found in Bulgaria

Thursday, August 15th, 2019

Georgi Palaiologos signet ring, 14th century. Photo courtesy National History Museum.Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered the tomb of a 14th-century aristocrat from the Byzantine Palaiologos imperial dynasty at the Kaliakra Fortress in northern Bulgaria. The tomb’s occupant was identified by a gold signet ring inscribed with his name: Georgi Palaiologos.

The ring is of the Kaloyan type, named after the gold seal ring found in a grave near the Church of the Holy Forty Martyrs in Tarnovo that was associated with the late 12th century Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan but almost certainly belonged to a 14th century descendant with the same name. Georgi’s ring is much more impressive than Kaloyan’s, larger, heavier with more detailed engraving. The central image is a dove with a cross-hatched background. The inscription encircles it.

In 16 seasons of excavations, numerous burials of Kaliakran aristocracy have been unearthed at the fortress on the coast of the Black Sea. It was the capital of the Despotate of Dobruja in the 14th century, ruled by Balik, followed by his brother Dobrotitsa. They were allied to the Palaiologi. Balik supported Anna of Savoy, widow of Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos and regent for her minor son John V Palaiologos during the Byzantine civil war (1341–1347). After Balik’s death in 1347, Anna carved out a larger autonomous province for Dobrotitsa to rule and he ended up conquering much of Bulgaria. Dobrotitsa’s daughter (we don’t know her name) married Michael Palaiologos, son of John V. It’s therefore eminently possible Georgi was related to both the despots and the emperors.

In the grave, the archeological team uncovered rich gifts that made it possible to restore the ritual of sending the young dead. The funeral was carried out in the second half of the fourteenth century, with a pit formed on a rock with a stone enclosure. The nobleman was laid in a coffin with well-preserved traces. His face was covered with luxurious fabric, gifts and a glass vessel were placed on his body, in which, according to his beliefs, the tears of the mourners were collected.

Note to self: add a mourners’ tears goblet codicil to my will.

This year’s dig will conclude at the end of the month. Later this year the National History Museum in Sofia will publish the full catalogue of finds from 2018’s star discovery, the clay pot full of coins, jewelry and other valuables dubbed the “Tartar booty.”

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Serpent sideplate found at Michigan colonial fort

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

The longest ongoing archaeological dig in the United States, the excavation of Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan’s lower peninsula, has unearthed a neat serpent-shaped sideplate from a British trade gun. Just shy five inches long, the sideplate dates to the 1770s. It was discovered in the west wall of the root cellar of House E of the Southeast Rowhouse. Only four gun parts have been found there in 12 years of excavations.

The house was first owned by French-Canadian fur trader Charles Henri Desjardins de Rupallay de Gonneville, who lived and worked in the area between the 1730s and 1750s, and later by an unidentified British trader. The site has proved an archaeological gold mine, with a unique ivory rosary found in 2015, a trade silver triangle pendant and a brass lock in 2017, and the hits just keep coming.

This find continues an amazing streak of discoveries from the past few years in the root cellar, including ceramic vessels, tin-glazed earthenware, creamware plates, Chinese export porcelain, a mostly intact knife, and the handle of a sword, all uncovered during the 2018 season, as well as a large ceramic sherd, a silver trade brooch, a door hinge and a large piece of feather creamware already found in 2019.

In the excavations that have taken place at Fort Michilimackinac every summer since 1959, archaeologists have unearthed more than a million objects and materials, so you wouldn’t think so modest an artifact as a serpent sideplate wouldn’t necessarily rate public comment, but the vast majority of what has been found at the fort are fragments of glass, bones, beads, buttons, literal trash left behind by the soldiers, traders and Native American residents who slowly moved out of the fort in favor of the nearby limestone fort of Mackinac Island. In the two years it took for the fort to be abandoned, all the valuables and every-day items that were still intact or usable in any way were packed up and moved with the people. Refuse is all that’s left, and because archaeology is awesome, what was garbage to the British and French in 1781 is such a rich treasury of information to us today that it has sustained six decades of continuous excavation.

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“I went to Rome and all I got you was this lousy stylus”

Monday, July 29th, 2019

An iron stylus inscribed with a quip reminiscent of many a hokey souvenir t-shirt has been found in central London. One of thousands of exceptional Roman treasures unearthed during the Museum of London Archaeology excavation of Bloomberg’s future European headquarters, the inscription makes this stylus unique. Inscribed Roman styluses are extremely rare finds anywhere in the empire, and the length and wit of this one makes it a stand-out piece.

The pens were used to write on wax-coated wooden tablets, more than 400 of which were discovered at the Bloomberg dig, extremely rare survivals that were preserved in the waterlogged soil of the lost Walbrook river.  MOLA archaeologists also found more than 200 styluses in that same excavation, and only this one had an inscription.

When it was first discovered during the 2010-2014 excavation, corrosion obscured the inscription making it illegible. The fact that it could be recovered at all is a tribute to the Walbrook’s powers of preservation. For years MOLA conservators have worked painstakingly to bring its clever wording back. Epigrapher Dr. Roger Tomlin was able to decipher and translate the tiny lettering:

‘ab urbe v[e]n[i] munus tibi gratum adf(e)ro
acul[eat]um ut habe[a]s memor[ia]m nostra(m)
rogo si fortuna dar[e]t quo possem
largius ut longa via ceu sacculus est (v)acuus’

‘I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift
with a sharp point that you may remember me.
I ask, if fortune allowed, that I might be able (to give)
as generously as the way is long (and) as my purse is empty.’

In other words: the stylus is a gift to remind the recipient of its sender; the sender acknowledges that it is a cheap gift and wishes that they could have given more.

The stylus dates to around 70 A.D., when Londinium was a thriving commercial and administrative center. The inscription is a glimpse into the links connecting people even at the outer edges of the empire with the Caput Mundi.

The conserved stylus is going on display for the first time at the Ashmolean Museum’s Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition.

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Six standing stones found in Switzerland

Friday, July 26th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered six Neolithic aligned standing stones in downtown Sion, Switzerland. The site on the Avenue du Petit-Chasseur was being excavated in advance of construction of a new apartment building. With the 3rd millennium B.C. dolmen of Le Petit-Chasseur less than a quarter mile down the road, the future development gave archaeologists an opportunity to explore one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe.

Several dolmen (dry stone collective tombs) and dozens of anthropomorphic stelae have been found in the area since the first dolmen was found in 1961. No dolmen were found this time, but the six standing stelae in a double row were.

Three of the recently found standing stones are engraved with markings. The biggest find is a stone weighing nearly two tonnes bearing a representation of a male figure wearing geometrically patterned clothing and with a sun-like motif around his face.

One of the stones also has a number of small circular depressions on its surface, something that has not been found before in Valais but has been found at a site in Aosta in Italy.

The stone decorated with cupules found at Saint-Martin-de-Corleans in Aosta dates from the same period, around 2500 B.C.

Archaeologists observed that some of the megaliths appear to have been deliberately broken and deposited. Others are incomplete. It’s possible that later builders re-used the standing stones in whole or in part. Indeed, the earliest dolmens discovered at Petit-Chasseur had walls made of engraved slabs.

This summer’s finds at Petit-Chasseur open new avenues of investigation to explore the megalithic structures of late Neolithic Sion and the complex societal rituals connected to them.

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