Child buried with glass bracelets at ancient Odeon

Archaeologists excavating the Roman-era Odeon theater in the ancient Greek city of Kelenderis have discovered the grave of a small child buried with four glass bracelets. Almost 150 burials have been discovered in the ancient Odeon since excavations began in 1987, but this is the first one of them to contain any grave goods.

The young child was buried inside a wood coffin of which only the iron nails have survived. He was wearing a garment with delicate white buttons. The garment has decomposed; the buttons survive. On his arm were four solid glass bangles in perfect condition. Inside the coffin was an ostracon — a piece of pottery with an inscription written on it — and a ceramic teacup.

The grave has not yet been dated, but archaeologists believe from the context that it was medieval. The remains of several infant burials were unearthed around this one, so this part of the Odeon appears to have been a dedicated children’s cemetery. However, the newly-discovered grave is not like the others. It is the only one with a coffin, and the only one with the remains of clothing. Radiocarbon dating and other analyses of the bones should fill in some blanks about the date and unusual elements of the burial.

Today the city of Aydıncık on the southern coast of Turkey, Kelenderis was founded by colonists from Samos in the 8th century B.C., Kelenderis became an important stop on Eastern Mediterranean trade routes and flourished during the 5th and 4th century B.C., then came to prominence again under the Roman Empire, reaching a new peak of prosperity in the 2nd century.

Unlike many other prominent Greek and Roman urban centers in what is now Turkey, which were destroyed in raids and natural disasters and have long gaps in their historical record post antiquity, Kelenderis was continuously populated throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman eras to the present. That makes modern Aydıncık dense in unexplored archaeological layers. Today most of the visible remains are Roman — public baths, the Odeon, the agora, defensive walls — grouped near the fishing port.

This year’s excavation has also solved a long-standing mystery about the city’s Byzantine history.

Speaking about the exciting discovery, the head of the excavations Mahmut Aydın said, “Excavations continue for 12 months of the year in the ancient city of Kelenderis. This year, we have completed the excavation and consolidation of the cavea, the sitting area, and the supporting walls behind the Odeon structure. Now we found a furnace that excites us. We knew for years that there was production here, but we couldn’t find the oven. The oven is 1,300 years old. We think that roof tiles were produced inside the furnace. Because during the excavations we carried out last year and this year, a large amount of roof tiles, dated to the seventh century, were found around the furnace. Since the roof tiles were faulty, we found them scattered around it. When we completely empty the inside of the furnace, we might find even more faulty roof tiles.”

2,550 wood offerings found at Templo Mayor

More than 2,550 wooden offerings have been discovered at the Templo Mayor in the historic center of Mexico City. The objects include darts, dart throwers, pectorals, earrings, masks, ear plugs, serpentine scepters, jars, headdresses, and figural representations, including one of a flower and another of a bone. They were ritual deposits made to consecrate new buildings and as offering to the patron deities of the temple, Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture.

The objects were made from softwood, mostly pine, along with some white cedar, Montezuma cypress, tepozán (aka Rio Grande butterfly bush) and aile (aka Andean alder). Almost all of them are complete, preserved for more than 500 years in anaerobic soil of the ancient lakebed. They are in such good condition that many of them retain their original polychrome paint.

Serpentine scepter and other objects excavated. Photo by Mirsa Orozco, INAH.The Templo Mayor was the religious center of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, and was built and rebuilt in seven phases between the founding of the city in 1325 and the early 1500s. The Spanish destroyed it in 1521 and over time its exact location was lost. It was rediscovered in the early 20th century in what was then an affluent neighborhood of Mexico City. It would not be fully excavated until 1978 and 13 buildings had to be demolished to get to the temple.

Since excavations began, more than 7,000 artifacts have been unearthed. Most of them are offerings — figurines, clay pots, skeletons of animanls, gold, snail shells, slate, obsidian knives —  but wood offerings were exceedingly rare, and the few that were found disintegrated almost instantly after being removed from their contexts and exposed to the air.

Archaeologists have a practices to prevent that sad fate today. Organic archaeological materials preserved in wet, dark, cool, low-oxygen environments are now kept wet until the water can be removed gradually. Decades of constant PEG showers preserved entire ships like the Mary Rose  and the Vasa. A giant custom-built freeze drier took over for PEG in the conservation of La Belle. The conservation of the 2,500 wood offerings will employ a cutting-edge method that requires neither prohibitively expensive petroleum product nor a prohibitively expensive freeze drier. INAH conservators are using a far cheaper and more accessible product: synthetic sugar.

Archaeologists working with the conservation team first transferred the wooden objects to the field laboratory where they were submerged in water and kept in plastic containers so they can be documented and assessed. Once in the conservation laboratory, the objects are soaked in a solution of synthetic sugars (lactitol, trehalose) which are chemically compatible with wood and can withstand attacks by microorganisms and fluctuations in humidity. The first solution is a week concentration of 5% sugars in water. As the cells of the wood absorb the sugars, the objects are moved into increasingly stronger concentrations in 13 stages until the solutions reach the maximum concentration of 82%. This process takes six to nine months.

Once the sugar solution has fully impregnated the wood, the objects will be rinsed and cured inside a heat chamber at 120F (the same temperature I use to dehydrate fresh garlic paste to make garlic powder). This final bake crystallizes the sugar within the cell walls of the wood, thickening the cell walls and maintaining the original volume of the artifacts.

1,300-year-old shipwreck found in France

Archaeologists have discovered the wreck of a ship that navigated the Garonne river in southwestern France in the 7th-8th century. The wooden ship was unearthed buried under the bed of the Estey de Lugan, a silted-over stream outside the city of Bordeaux. The thick, water-logged clay has preserved the organic materials of the ship, including some rope fittings, for 1,300 years. There is almost no surviving written history chronicling navigation methods from the period, so the survival of this shipwreck is a unique testimonial to naval design in early medieval France.

The wreck is about 40 feet long, out of an estimated original length of about 50 feet when it was intact. The keel and dimensions indicate it was a cargo ship capable of both river and coastal navigation. It has a flat floor that would have allowed it to carry bulk goods. Both oak and softwood were used to construct it.

INRAP archaeologists will first document the ship in meticulous detail with photogrammetry, a 3D virtual model numbering and recording every individual piece of wood. The planks will be dismantled and numbered so that they can be reconstructed once stabilized and conserved.

The removal of the wreck will give archaeologists the unprecedented opportunity to study how it was constructed and how it navigated the waterways. The team will also be able to study the waterways themselves. The ship was found in a relatively remote area, a stream that was already non-navigable when it was documented in the 18th century. That a cargo vessel would take to a small stream off the Garonne attests to how these marshy areas near major waterways were used by trade vessels.

Two pieces reunite to form rare Viking sword hilt

Two pieces of a Viking sword hilt of exceptional quality and rarity have been reunited after 1200 years. The first piece was discovered last year by a metal detectorist in a field in Stavanger, southwestern Norway. It was a small irregular piece and the finder had no idea what it was, so he handed it in to the Stavanger Museum of Archaeology for further investigation. A year later, a friend of the finder returned to the field and found a large sections of an ornately decorated sword hilt. Museum conservators realized this was a match for the little fragment found the year before.

The hilt is from the most ornamented and heaviest Viking sword types, known as a D-sword. Only about 20 D-type sword pieces have been found in Norway, and they were either imported and/or copied meticulously by local smiths. The decorative style dates it to the early 9th century.

It is still difficult to see the details in the hilt, but the décor includes gilded elements of the typical animal styles found during the Iron and Viking Age, from ca 550-1050, according to the press release. The hilt also contains geometrical figures in silver, made with the so-called niello technique. This means that a metallic mixture of sorts was used to make black stripes in the silver.

Both ends of the crossguard are formed as animal heads.

“The technique is of a very high quality, and both the lavish and complicated decor and the special formation of the crossguard make this a truly unique find,” archaeologist Zanette Glørstad from the Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger, says in the press release.

The closest comparable example is a bronze sword hilt with silver gilt inlay and niello enamel discovered on the Isle of Eigg (now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh ).

The hilt pieces were found in the Gausel area of Stavanger on a field adjacent to the farm where the richly-furnished tomb of a Viking woman was discovered in 1883. Dubbed the Gausel Queen, the elite woman was buried with 40 artifacts of exceptional quality — bronze, silver and gold jewelry, knives, drinking horns, a cooking pan, fittings from a reliquary box — including rare and expensive imports from Ireland.

The Queen was not alone. Other Viking graves have been found there, and many more are known to have been destroyed during agricultural work. Even with spotty old archaeological practices, accidental discoveries and looting marring the archaeological record, more and more varied Medieval Irish metalwork has been discovered in this area than in any other place in Europe. Archaeologists believe this part of the coast was one the major departure points for Viking ship voyages westward across the North Sea.

The hilt is now undergoing cleaning and conservation before it goes on permanent display at the museum.

Rusty 14th c. saber wielded by Turkish raiders or Greek defenders?

A medieval curved sword from the early 14th century has been discovered in a ruined monastery on the northwest Aegean coast 40 miles southeast of Thessaloniki. It was unearthed in an excavation of the ruins of Agios Nicolaos Chrysokamaros, a small fortified dependency of the Saint George the Zograf Monastery on Mount Athos just across the bay.  Very few late Byzantine swords have been found in Greece, and this is the only one to have been unearthed by archaeologists in its original undisturbed archaeological context.

The 14th century was a turbulent time on the Chalcidice peninsula, primarily due to conflicts between the Latins and the Byzantine Empire. The Catalan Grand Company, Aragonese mercenaries initially engaged by the Byzantine emperor who would later double-cross them, spent a solid two years between 1307 and 1309 sacking the monasteries on Mount Athos. Incursions by Turkish pirates, Balkan potentates seeking to chip away at Byzantine territory and the growth of Ottoman power kept the Aegean coast in constant turmoil.  There were 300 monasteries on Mount Athos in 1300. By the end of the 1300s, there were only 35 still standing.

The sword is heavily corroded and incomplete with a surviving length of 18 inches. It has a single edge and is curved throughout its full length. It was bent and burned in the raid that destroyed the monastery outpost. Several of the metal rings from the scabbard fused to the blade. They are the only part of the scabbard to survive.

This type of saber was used by both Byzantine and Turkish soldiers, so it’s difficult to know who wielded this weapon before it was buried.

[Excavation leaders] Maniotis and Dogas have identified three military actions in the 14th century that could have led to the sword being used there: attacks along the coast by Turkish pirates, which included the kidnapping in 1344 of administrators from the Mount Athos monastery; the occupation of the region from 1345 until about 1371 by the forces of the Serbian king Stefan Dušan, who aspired to conquer Byzantine territories in the West; and the siege of Thessalonica by Ottoman troops from 1383 until 1387, when the Chalkidiki region was often raided for food.

Maniotis can’t say for sure, but he thinks the sword may be of Turkish origin, and that it was used in a pirate raid on the monastery.

The excavation has revealed that the monastic outpost was very well fortified indeed, encircled by a granite block wall more than six feet thick. The tower was used as a shelter for villagers during military attacks and pirate raids, and to keep important religious relics and food stores safe. Evidence of severe fire damage was found in the same archaeological layer as the curved sword, indicating the tower was set alight in a raid.