Archive for the ‘Ex Cathedra’ Category

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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.”


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.





October 2022


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