Archive for the ‘Ex Cathedra’ Category

Two of Vesuvius’ victims found, cast

Saturday, November 21st, 2020

New plaster casts have been made of two victims of the eruption of Vesuvius in a villa on the outskirts of Pompeii. The skeletal remains of two adult men were found in a side room of the cryptoporticus at the suburban villa at Civita Giuliana about half a mile northwest of Pompeii’s city walls. This is the same villa where the remains of a purebred horse dressed with a bronze-plated saddle and tack, were found in the stables in 2018. A graffito discovered earlier this year suggests the estate may have belonged to a member of the wealthy and influential Mummius family.

The room where the two bodies were found is in the northwest residence where the family and guests lived. It’s next to the cryptoporticus below the terrace peristyle garden overlooking the Bay of Naples. A vaulted opening led from the cryptoporticus to a rectangular room that allowed access to the upper floor. The room was seven feet wide and of undetermined length. It had a wooden floor and was destroyed when the first stories of the house collapsed when it was slammed by the pyroclastic flow. Archaeologists first found the tell-tale hollows in the layers of hardened ash that were left behind after the soft tissues of the bodied decayed. Digging down through a small hole to preserve as much of the void as possible, archaeologists found the bones. Most of them were removed for analysis. Plaster was then poured into the voids to capture the shape of the bodies.

They were both in supine position. One was a young man between 18 and 25. He was approximately 5’1″ tall and evidence of compression of his vertebrae, unusual in someone so young, indicates he had carried out manual labour for a long time. The imprint of his clothing was left in the ash hollow and therefore on the cast. He was wearing a short tunic of heavy fabric, likely wool.  The tunic and bone damage suggests he may have been a slave. The other victim was found with his head turned, cheek in the hardened ash, his arms folded, hands on his chest, legs spread wide apart. He was older than the first victim, between 30 and 40, and an inch taller. He was more elaborately attired in a tunic topped with a woollen mantle.

Both died in the second pyroclastic flow. They and the other Pompeiians had survived the pumice rain that fell for 19 hours an the first pyroclastic flow that struck the town when the eruptive column collapsed. Vesuvius then tricked them by quieting down for about half an hour, just long enough to encourage the survivors to leave their hiding places and attempt to flee with their lives. The second pyroclastic flow hit with sudden fury, faster and far more powerful than the first, blowing through vertical walls, pancaking the tops of buildings into the bottoms and killing the people who had hoped to escape their fate. The flow appears to have flooded the room in the Civita Giuliana villa through multiple points of entry, engulfing the men in hot ash that would harden into their tomb. Their entire bodies were encased in a gray ash layer 6.5 feet deep created by the second flow.

Other voids were discovered in this room three or so feet from the victims. The hollows were manually examined and plaster poured into them revealing items that may have been lost during the attempted escape, mainly heaps of heavy, draped cloth. The wool clothes they were wearing and carrying are additional evidence that the eruption took place October 24-25, not the traditional August date that may be the result of a medieval translation error.

This video shows the process of opening the voids, pouring the plaster and excavating the casts.

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Head of Hermes found in Athens sewer

Friday, November 20th, 2020

A marble bust of the Hermes, messenger of the gods, has been discovered during sewer construction in Athens, Greece. It is estimated to date from the end of the 4th century or early 3rd century B.C., when it was originally part of a herm, a rectangular pillar with a sculpted bust on top and genitalia at the base. Crews found the head on Friday, November 13th, built into the south wall of a modern drainage duct.

The newly-discovered bust is typical of the Hermes Propylaeus (Hermes of the Gateways) type created by ancient Greek sculptor Alcamenes in the mid-5th century B.C. and frequently copied throughout the Greco-Roman world. Alcamenes was known for blending elements of Archaic style from the 6th century B.C. with the greater expressive naturalism of Classical period. His Hermes couples the stylized curly hair and beard of an Archaic kore with the differentiated facial features of the Classical. Also typical of the Archaic style, Hermes is depicted in mature age. His iconography would shift in the later Classical and Hellenistic periods to depictions of the deity as a lissome young man.

Because Hermes with his winged sandals was the god who protected travelers on their journeys, herms were erected at boundaries, crossroads, gateways and graves. This herm was originally a crossroads or gateway marker in Athens and was recycled for use in the sewer drains many centuries later.

The work is in good condition despite its checkered past, and is now in the care of the Ephorate of Antiquities.

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A brief update, with thanks

Thursday, November 5th, 2020

Many thanks to everyone who left such thoughtful and supportive comments on Tuesday’s Programming Note, and to everyone who waited with quiet patience for my return to history blogging.

Even in the midst of the on-going maelstrom, I can say without reservation that I loved working the polls on election day. It was nothing but good vibes from my fellow workers and from the voters. The youngest volunteer was just 16! He did a great job managing the lines.

Quite a few voters brought their children who were so excited to see how the process works. Some got to slide the ballot into the box for their parents and I made sure they got as many “I Voted” stickers, which were particularly cool and varied this year, as they wanted.

After the polls closed, I witnessed and signed the vote count along with two other members of the team, and I removed all the paper ballots from the ballot box for delivery to city hall. I found it genuinely affecting to be literally elbows deep in the physical manifestations of democracy. And here’s a cool discovery I never expected or even entered the antechamber of my mind: thousands of paper ballots smell wonderful. You know how some coffee table books with thick paper and fine ink smell amazing? It was like that but a hundred times stronger.

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Programming note

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020

I’m volunteering as a poll worker, and since the call time is 5AM and we don’t leave the premises until the polls close at 8PM, I won’t have time to write today. Posting will resume as normal on Wednesday. (Assuming I don’t sleep all day. Which I might, as I am going to need to ingest industrial quantities of coffee to make it through today.) 

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Possible French Revolution bones found in memorial chapel wall

Sunday, June 28th, 2020

Osteological remains believed to date to the French Revolution have been found in the wall of the Chapelle Expiatoire, a memorial chapel dedicated to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette built on the site of a cemetery where they were buried after they were guillotined.

Aymeric Peniguet de Stoutz, the chapel’s administrator, turned historical detective after he noticed curious anomalies in the walls between the columns of the lower chapel. Anxious not to damage the building’s foundations, the French authorities called in an archaeologist, who inserted a camera through the stones in the walls.

In his report, archaeologist Philippe Charlier confirmed Peniguet de Stoutz’s hypothesis: “The lower chapel contains four ossuaries made of wooden boxes, probably stretched out with leather, filled with human bones,” he wrote. “There is earth mixed with fragments of bones.”

The Madeleine Cemetery had been in use for less than 75 years when it was shuttered by the Revolutionary government in 1794 after residents complained about the stench. It opened in 1721 and received an average of about 160 new burials a year. Those figures were eclipsed by tragedy in 1770 after 132/3 people died when a fireworks display on Place Louis XV (modern-day Place de la Concorde) celebrating the marriage of the Dauphin to Marie Antoinette went awry and a stampede ensued.

Come the Revolution, the plodding pace of burials picked up briskly. Part of the Revolutionary agenda was the creation of large extramural cemeteries to replace the hundreds of insalubrious, shoddily-maintained churchyards grossing up the city, but the death toll of Revolution necessitated a more immediate solution. La Madeleine fit the bill nicely. It was a ten minute stroll from the former Place Louis XV, now renamed Place de la Révolution, where the guillotine was erected. As a relatively new cemetery, it still had space for inhumations. It was also walled in, keeping the ugly work of the constant grave-digging and body dumping away from prying eyes.

Some of the victims of the Revolution believed to have been buried there are the Madame du Barry, more than 600 Swiss guards killed defending the royal family in the Tuileries Palace during the Insurrection of 10 August 1792, more than a thousand prisoners killed in the September Massacres including Marie Antoinette’s closest friend the Princess de Lamballe, the Duke of Orléans aka Phillipe Égalité, dozens of Girondists, Charlotte Corday and last but not least, Jacques Hébert and his followers who were buried there on March 24th, 1794, right before the cemetery’s closure.

Walls notwithstanding, people were definitely watching the Revolution’s body count get buried and watching very closely at that. In 1802, Olivier Desclozeaux, a royalist who had lived next door to the cemetery since 1789, bought the land. He claimed to have seen where the guillotined bodies of King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette had been buried and paid his respects by planting trees and hedges around the burial site. He sold the land to Louis XVIII in 1815 and the king had the remains of his older brother Louis XVI and his queen moved to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the ancient necropolis of the kings of France. The next year Louis XVIII commissioned construction of the Chapelle Expiatoire where his brother’s remains had once lain. It was completed in 1826.

The Madeleine cemetery was only fully cleared in 1844. All extant bones were removed to the West Ossuary. When it was closed in 1859, the bones moved to their final resting place: the Catacombs of Paris. Today a plaque notes the stack of bones said to have come from Madeleine.

There is no way of knowing whether the bones in the chapel wall were the remains of guillotined aristocrats, Swiss guards, revolutionaries killed by other revolutionaries, victims of the fireworks debacle or any of the regular 160 yearly burials that took place at the Madeleine Cemetery from 1721. Louis XVIII ordered that “no earth saturated with victims [of the revolution] be moved from the place for the building of the [Chapelle Expiatoire],” but it seems somebody involved in the construction didn’t follow directions, probably because the exigencies of building over a cemetery required a little flexibility lest the remains be destroyed in construction.

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Young girl’s graffiti points to villa owner

Friday, June 5th, 2020

The name of a young girl scratched on the frescoed wall of a luxury villa in Pompeii has proven to be an invaluable clue to the home’s owner. A graffito of the name “Mummia” was found 4.5 feet above the floor on one of the interior walls of the villa. The low height of the name indicates the graffiti artist was a child, probably Mummia herself and likely a member of the family to be so bold as to write on the finely painted walls.

Mummia is the female version of the gens (family name) Mummius. By Roman naming conventions, the praenomen (personal name) of girls was usually the female version of the family name, so it’s likely the girl who scribbled on the wall was Mummia Mummius. The plebian Mummius family came to prominence in the 2nd century B.C. when Lucius Mummius was the first of the family to be elected consul in 146 B.C. As consul, he led the Roman army in the Achaean War against Greece and conquered Corinth with scorching brutality. He was granted a triumph upon his return to Rome and received the agnomen Achaicus in recognition of his conquest. He was the first New Man (someone with no consuls in his ancestry) to be so honored.

Among the women of the gens, only one Mummia has a notable presence in the history books. Mummia  Achaica, great-grandaughter of the general, was the mother of the emperor Servius Galba who took the throne after the suicide of Nero. His brief reign from June 68 A.D. to January 60 A.D. ushered in the Year of the Four Emperors.

The villa north of the city walls was first discovered in 2018 and made the news for the discovery of three sets of horse remains, including the first confirmed horse ever discovered in Pompeii. Archaeologists began the excavation as an emergency salvage operation after looting tunnels under the house imperiled its structural stability. They first unearthed the service rooms of the grand suburban villa, including stables and servants’ quarters. Continuing excavations this year have brought to life the family’s living space. The team has unearthed beautifully frescoed vault of a large cryptoporticus which has yet to be fully explored. Mummia’s handiwork was discovered on one of the walls of the cryptoporticus.

When the stable was discovered in 2018, archaeologists deduced from the thoroughbred horse, bronze plated saddle and tack that the villa must have belonged to a military officer of high rank. Thanks to that scamp Mummia, we now have solid evidence that officer was a member of the Mummius family. They held a number of important political and military officers in the 1st century before Pompeii was destroyed. One of them, Mummius Lupercus, fought the rebellious Germanic Batavi in 69 A.D., just 10 years before the eruption of Vesuvius. (He was defeated, captured and killed, so if the villa had been his, it wasn’t anymore by the time that horse was saddled to take his master out harm’s way. The horse didn’t make it, so his master probably didn’t either.)

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Roman leather toy mouse found in Vindolanda scrap bag

Saturday, May 16th, 2020

Curators at the Vindolanda Museum have discovered a Roman leather mouse in a bag full of scraps and off cuts. The flat piece of leather cut in the shape of a mouse dates to the early 2nd century. It is an angular, geometric outline and rather fat-tailed, reminiscent more of an Escher lizard than a mouse at first glance, but upon closer inspection there are dashes indicating hairs on the body and down the tail.

There are more than 7,000 leather objects in the museum’s collection, preserved in the anaerobic soil of the ancient fort site. Some of the Roman leather pieces now on display at the Vindolanda Museum are tents panels, patches, bags and enough shoes to make Imelda Marcos blush. Excavations have also unearthed many leather scraps which are in storage, not notable enough on their own to warrant going on display. Curators discovered the mouse in a box of leather offcuts and scraps that had been found in the period IV/V residence of the  commanding officer in 1993. That dates the mouse to around 105-130 A.D.

The Trust’s Curator, Barbara Birley said “One of the most wonderful things about the Vindolanda collection is that we never know what we are going to find next. Even though we have had to delay the start of our 2020 excavations this year we see the collection still has hidden treasures to be revealed. Although we have a significant amount of evidence of children at Vindolanda we have very few toys, it would be wonderful if this little mouse had been a toy and a source of entertainment for a child here on the northern frontier”.

Real mice were indeed everywhere in ancient Vindolanda, in every fort, likely to be present in all houses and spaces and would have been a consistent pest and companion to the people who lived there. When the Vindolanda granaries were excavated in 2008, the bones from thousands of dead mice were uncovered below the floors of the building, where they had been living and feasting on the ears of grain that dropped between the flagstones. It is quite wonderful that someone 2,000 years ago crafted this toy mouse from leather, in the knowledge that their creation would not have sharp teeth nor eat them out of house and home.

The museum will study and conserve the newly-discovered rodent and will then put it on display in the leather case.

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Prince’s seal found at Ming battlefield site

Thursday, May 7th, 2020

Archaeologists have unearthed an incredibly rare gold seal belonging to a prince of the Ming Dynasty at the site of a 17th century battlefield in Jiangkou Township, Sichuan Province, southwest China. The square seal is made of all but solid gold (95%) and is four inches square and more than an inch thick. On top is a large knob handle in the shape of a tortoise. The characters on the underside of the seal read “Shu Shi Zi Bao.” Shu is the Ming-era name for the modern-day province of Sichuan and “Shi Zi” is the title for the first son of a prince.

The Jiangkou Chenyin historic site on the banks of the Minjiang river was pilfered by looters first. In 2016, police opened an investigation after a proliferation of extremely rare gold and silver Ming artifacts began to pop up on the black market. The investigation bore rich fruit — 10 looting gangs and 70 traffickers were busted, hundreds of artifacts recovered — and the subsequent archaeological investigation bore even richer fruit. Within two months, the 2017 dig discovered more than 10,000 artifacts. The 2018 and 2019 seasons unearthed another 42,000.

Objects retrieved include earrings, finger rings, bracelets, clasps, bullion, coins, and decorative objects in gold and silver. One gold coin is a medallion bearing the name of rebel leader Zhang Xianzhong who would have gifted it to a subordinate for a military success. Some of the silver bullion is stamped with the name of the local government under Zhang’s brief rule. A Ming-era firearm discovered last year was joined this year by the discovery of lead balls of different sizes.

The gold seal of Zhang Xianzhong, the most important artifact from the site that was looted, sold to a private collector and recovered by police in 2016, was discovered in two parts. The tiger handle had broken off cleanly from the square seal. The gold seal discovered in this year’s dig, on the other hand, has multiple cut marks and was found in several pieces. The writing is also more worn than the pristine writing on Zhang’s seal. Much of the damage was likely inflicted before it fell in the river when the prince’s seal was looted by Zhang’s forces.

These rich finds are of archaeological significance beyond their artifact value because they add important information to what we know about Ming Dynasty metal craft, fiscal systems, military technology and governance during the troubled final years of its rule that gave rise to Zhang Xianzhong and the peasant revolt he joined.

This year’s dig was the last. The artifacts will be conserved and stored for now while a new museum is built to house the massive collection of precious Ming objects. Construction is slated to begin at the end of the year and is expected to be completed in three.

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Tour 5,000 years of Egypt’s heritage

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

Five of Egypt’s most spectacular heritage sites are open for virtual business with outstanding 3D models. The oldest of the four sites is the tomb of Queen Meresankh III, consort of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh Khafre, builder of the second largest pyramid at Giza. She was her husband’s niece and the granddaughter of Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the largest, the Great Pyramid of Giza. She died shortly after Khafre around 2532 B.C. Her elaborately decorated mastaba tomb, possibly built for her mother who ended up outliving her, is just east of her grandfather’s pyramid.

The next in chronological order is the tomb of Menna in the Theban Necropolis. Menna was an 18th Dynasty scribe and overseer of fields owned by the pharaoh and the temple of Amun-Ra. His duties included supervising the small army of scribes who recorded the size of fields and their crop yields and inspected the laborers at work. Menna would then report to the administration of the pharaoh’s granaries. These activities are recorded on wall paintings whose style identifies them as having been created during the reign of Amenhotep III. The tomb is one of the most visited sites on Luxor’s west bank because of how excellently preserved the paintings still are today.

The tomb of Menna underwent an ambitious conservation project from 2007-2009 during which it was precisely documented with high-resolution photography and precisely mapped. The paintings were analyzed using X-ray fluorescence, RAMAN spectrometry and colorimetry to help conservators determine how best to stabilize and repair them.

Still ancient but not quite so ancient is the Red Monastery, a Coptic Orthodox monastery built in the 5th century near the modern city of Sohag on the west bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt. Its main church, dedicated to Saint Pshoi, is built of red brick and has unique architectural features. Its portals and columns were custom-built instead of pilfered from ancient Roman or pharaonic monuments. The triconch sanctuary’s three apses are adorned with richly painted columns. Its walls are decorated top to bottom, with frescoes of saints in niches. It is still an active monastery today and is a site of pilgrimage for Coptic Christians.

Medieval Egypt is also on the virtual menu. The 14th century Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Barquq is not open to tourists, so the virtual tour is a rare opportunity to view some pretty spectacular architectural features that you couldn’t see in person.

Rounding out the religious heritage of Egypt is Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue. While the current building was completed in 1892, there were predecessor synagogues on the site going back at least to the 9th century, and the Ben Ezra congregation is even older than that, possibly predating Islam. Its antiquity was confirmed when a massive trove of almost half a million Jewish manuscript fragments were discovered in the synagogue’s geniza (storeroom). This extraordinary collection of documents date from 870 to the 19th century and include both secular and religious writings in several languages. They were removed to Britain in the late 19th century and are now scattered in libraries throughout the UK and the US.

Sadly, there is no Ben Ezra congregation anymore; there are only a handful of Egyptian Jews remaining in Cairo today. The synagogue is a museum now, no longer used for services.

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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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