Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Jamestown remains identified as four early leaders

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

When the Virginia Company sent the first batch of 104 settlers to colonize the New World, they chose Jamestown Island, marshy and mosquito-ridden with virtually no farmland, bad hunting and no fresh water but secure from any potential attack by Spanish ships, as the site for their new colony. They built James Fort, a triangular wooden palisade, within two weeks and the first Jamestown settlement was established inside its perimeter. It was small, but soon contained at least a storehouse, several houses and one church, the first Protestant church in the New World.

Built in 1608, the church served the community for almost decade. Secretary of the colony William Strachey described it as “pretty chapel” 60 feet long and 24 feet wide with a cedar wood chancel. In 1614 Pocahontas married tobacco planter John Rolfe there. Within three years of that wedding, the church had fallen into disrepair and was abandoned when a new church was built nearby as the settlement expanded eastward from the original confines of Fort James. Over time the location of the first fort and its church was lost.

It was Strachey’s description that helped archaeologists identify the remains of the church when they were discovered during a 2010 excavation of the rediscovered Fort James site. The structural posts matched the dimensions documented by Strachey, as did the structure’s orientation in the middle of the fort. At the eastern end of the building, archaeologists found four graves. This space was the cedar chancel Strachey mentioned, the area in the front of the church with the altar which was reserved for the most important people during services. Only people of very high status were honored with burial under the chancel.

Since the archaeological site of Jamestown is open to visitors, the church remains were refilled for safety. Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists, working with forensic anthropologists from the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, returned in November of 2013 to fully excavate the graves in the hopes they might be able to identify the people buried there. The remains were under threat, as is the entire Jamestown site, by rising sea levels, and one of the skeletons had been significantly damaged by workers in 1938 (when the location of the fort was still unknown) unwittingly dug a trench through the chancel to install electric cable. The excavation revealed one body had been buried only in a shroud (the others had wooden coffins) and two of the people were buried with artifacts that could help identify them.

The team carefully unearthed and documented the graves, using a precision laser tool to record the positions of the graves, skeletons, coffin fragments and artifacts. Then the Smithsonian’s outstanding 3D Digitization Program Office did their magic, laser scanning the entire site, collecting millions of data points and high resolution photographs that would allow them to create an interactive 3D model of the burials. I won’t embed it because the last time I did it caused some loading problems, but here’s the 3D model of the chancel graves on the Smithsonian website.

The skeletal remains were then removed to the lab for analysis. Time and environment had not been kind to them — only 30% of each skeleton was recovered — but the bones could still speak through science. All four were men who were between their early 20s and their 40s when they died, and all four were found to have carbon and oxygen isotope values indicating they were raised in England. None of them show the tell-tale osteological signs of strenuous labor, but the teeth of two of them were in bad shape with numerous cavities and abscesses. That was a clue that those two men may have been in America longer than the other two and had thus been exposed to a potentially tooth-rotting sweet corn diet for a few more years. High levels of lead in the bones of two of the men suggested they were high-born since in the 17th century the wealthy and noble ingested more lead than the poor courtesy of lead-lined and pewter tableware.

The artifacts proved as challenging to study as they were revelatory. In the southernmost grave, archaeologists found a textile made of silk cloth, silver threads and silver spangles between the rib cage and left arm of the skeleton. A near-miraculous survival, the artifact was too fragile to be excavated and was removed in a soil block. X-rays found the hundreds of silver threads and spangles in the soil block. Micro CT 3D scanning revealed the object was a captain’s sash decorated with bullion fringe.

The two artifacts found in the other burial were placed in the grave outside the coffin. One was an iron fragment three inches long that turned out to be the finial below the tip of a ceremonial spear known as a leading staff. The other was a silver box placed on top of the coffin. The box was corroded shut, so the research team turned to X-ray and CT scanning in the attempt to see what might be inside. With help from increasingly higher resolution microCT scanners, gradually the silver box gave up its secrets. It’s a reliquary containing a lead ampulla, a vial used to hold holy water, oil or the blood of a saint, broken in two pieces and seven fragments of bone, also probably holy relics. Their final scans were so detailed they were able to 3D-print reproductions of the contents for examination.

Reliquaries are Catholic and like other Catholic devotional objects they were outlawed by Elizabeth I and her successor James I. This box may be evidence of a crypto-Catholic presence in the colony, which is also supported by other more modest finds made elsewhere in Jamestown like pilgrim’s tokens, crucifixes and rosary beads.

Thanks also to copious documentary research on likely candidates, the Jamestown Rediscovery team was able to identify the four men as:

  1. The Reverend Robert Hunt, the former vicar of Reculver, England, who arrived with the first settlers in 1607 and died aged around 40 between January and April of 1608.
  2. Captain Gabriel Archer, a bitter rival of Captain John Smith (he once called for his execution), who explored the interior along the James River valley. He died during the horrific “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610 at the age of 35. The reliquary is his, and since his parents were Catholics, once fined for non-attendance of Anglican services, he could very well have been as well, only on the downlow.
  3. Sir Ferdinando Wainman, the earliest English knight known to have been buried in the New World, arrived in June of 1610 with his relative, the first governor of Virginia Thomas West, Lord De La Warr. He was appointed Jamestown’s master of the ordnance and cavalry, but he didn’t have a chance to serve for long as he died between July and August of 1610. He was 34.
  4. Captain William West, another relative of Lord De La Warr’s who arrived in June 1610 only to die within months. He was killed in battle against Powhatan warriors in the fall or winter of 1610. The glorious sash is his.

The two men with the high lead levels were Wainman and Archer.

The Historic Jamestowne website is excellent, packed with information on the history of the site and its ongoing archaeology. I strongly advise starting on the chancel burials page and clicking through the large icons which will lead to pages with other large icons beneath. In addition to detailed information on the four men, they have many videos related to this find, all short enough to binge on like popcorn one after the other.

This one about the church has footage of the 2011 excavation and shows how respectfully the site was refilled with mounds and crosses marking the four burials:

The 2013 excavation of the burials:

Overview of the discovery and identification of the skeletal remains:

Flythrough of a 3D rendering of the chancel burials:

Captain West’s fabulous silk and silver sash:

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Metal detectorist finds actual Nazi gold

Monday, July 20th, 2015

On October 10th of last year, licensed metal detectorist Florian Bautsch struck gold on the outskirts of Lüneburg in the northern German state of Lower Saxony. Nazi gold. Scanning an area with hillocks that archaeologists suspected might be ancient burial mounds, Bautsch first found a single gold coin and then nine more in the hollow under a pine tree. He recorded the find location by GPS and notified the relevant authorities at the Lüne­burg Museum .

Thanks to Bautsch’s conscientiousness, archaeologists were able to do something they rarely get the chance to do: excavate a portable treasure in its proper context. The two-week excavation unearthed another 207 gold coins buried under that three, bringing the total up to 217. The oldest coin dates to 1831, the newest to 1910, and none of them were minted in Germany. The majority — 128 coins — are Belgian. Another 74 coins were minted in France, 12 in Italy and the last three in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite their diverse origins, all of the coins have the same diameter (21 millimeters) and weigh the same (6.45 grams). The total coin weight is 1.4 kilos (3 lbs). These are not circulation coins. They were minted in large batches to be purchased by individuals and banks for investment purposes.

Archaeologists also found two aluminium seals bearing the swastika, the imperial eagle and stamped “Reichsbank Berlin 244.” They also found remnants of tar paper and some individual fibers. These elements are what’s left of two coin bags, lined with tar paper and sealed by the Berlin Reichsbank during World War II. Those type of seals were used starting in 1940 and the chemical composition of the tar paper identifies it as a type produced before 1950. It is the greatest treasure from this period ever found in northern Germany. Had the finder just dug it all out himself and taken the gold, nobody would have been the wiser and the key evidence identifying it as Nazi gold, as fragile as it is important, would have been lost forever.

The working theory right now is that the gold coins, likely looted by Nazis from occupied territories before being grouped by exact size and weight, bagged and sealed, were stolen in the waning days of the Second World War. If so, it was almost certainly an inside job, a theft by a bank employee looking for some financial security in the most insecure of times.

As the coins were buried relatively recently under shady circumstances, at first authorities gave any potential legitimate owners the opportunity to claim the treasure. It was a long shot (although it has been known to happen) and indeed, nobody stepped forward to claim ownership. Then, because the find bears the marks of a previous government bank, state authorities contacted the German Ministry of Finance but they weren’t interested in claiming the coins either. Finally the orphaned gold was adopted by Lower Saxony which of course had wanted it all along.

England’s Treasure Act has a mechanism that gives finders and landowners a reward in the amount of the discovery’s market value as assessed by a valuation committee. German monument protection laws (they differ from state to state) have no such mechanism, so while the estimated value of the coins is €45,000 ($49,000), Florian Bautsch will receive a €2,500 ($2,710) reward from the state of Lower Saxony. He’s a proper history nerd, bless his heart, so the money isn’t what matters to him. The archaeological significance of the find is reward enough.

The gold coins went on temporary display at the Lüne­burg Museum yesterday. Curators are now discussing how best to integrate the hoard into the museum’s permanent display in the future.

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2,000 Bronze Age gold spirals found in Denmark

Friday, July 10th, 2015

An unprecedented cache 2,000 gold spirals from the Bronze Age has been discovered in a field near the town of Boeslunde on the Danish island of Zealand. Bronze Age spirals have been found before — gold ones in the Syke hoard in Germany, for example, and bronze ones in Poland — but these are the first to be discovered in Denmark.

The spirals are made of very thin, very pure, flat gold thread just 0.1 millimeter thick and up to three centimeters (1.18 inches) long. Some of the spirals are complete at up to three centimeters long; some are in small fragments. All totalled, the gold weight of the spirals is between 200 and 300 grams (7-10 ounces). Two gilded fibulae found with the spirals date the find to 900-700 B.C.

In 2013, metal detectorists Christian Albertsen and his uncle Hans Henrik Hansen found four gold bangles, so-called oath rings, in the same Boeslunde field. Six other gold oath rings had been unearthed in the field earlier (each individually at different times, not as part of a hoard) and in the 1800s local farmers found a group of six elaborately decorated gold bowls, two of which have incredibly thin gold wire wound around elongated handles crafted to look like stylized dragons. The total weight of the 10 oath rings found in Boeslunde is 3.5 kilos (7.7 pounds). The set of bowls weighs another kilo (2.2 pounds). That makes Boeslunde the richest gold field of the Northern European Bronze Age, and there may well be more to find.

It was the oath ring discovery that spurred the discovery of the spirals. After the bangles were found, the West Zealand Museum undertook an excavation of the field. It was a small search area — only a few square meters of soil were dug up — and archaeologists found a small group of three or four spiral fragments bundled together. Christian Albertsen, the finder of the oath rings who was assisting in the dig, brought one of the spirals to a jeweler. He confirmed that it was made of gold, not brass, so the Zealand Museum decided to dig again in the same spot, this time enlisting the aid of experts from the National Museum of Denmark.

During this second excavation archaeologists made the bulk of the find: a large pile of gold coils. Underneath and around the pile were shards of a grey-black material. Analysis in the National Museum’s lab identified these black chunks as birch bark tar, a substance used by prehistoric peoples, including the Neanderthals, as an all-purpose adhesive starting 80,000 years ago. The copper axe found with the 5,300-year-old iceman Otzi was hafted with birch bark tar. The tar chunks found under the spirals bore the imprint of a flat wooden surface on one side of the flakes and the imprint of animal skin on the other, which indicates the tar was used to glue a leather lining into a wooden box. Archaeologists think the spirals were placed inside a jewelry box or dress chest before being buried in the Boeslunde field.

It’s not clear how the coils were used or for what purpose. Given the high quantity of sacrificed gold found in the field, the location may have held ritual importance.

Flemming Kaul from the National Museum also believes that the area had some sort of religious significance as a place where Bronze Age worshippers carried out rituals and sacrifices to the higher powers.

“Maybe the priest king had a golden bracelet around his wrist, and the gold spirals adorned his cape or his hat, where during rituals they shone like the sun. The sun was one of the holy symbols in the Bronze Age and gold was presumably seen as having some sort of particular magic power. It is colored like the sun, it shines like the sun, and because gold lasts forever, it was also seen as containing some of the Sun’s power,” Kaul said.

The Zealand Museum and the National Museum plan to continue to excavate the site in cooperation with amateur archaeologists/metal detectorists like Christian Albertsen who has been so instrumental in the momentous discoveries made in Boeslunde. The gold spirals will be on display at an open house at the Skaelskor City Museum on Wednesday, July 15th. Visitors will be able to enjoy the shiny pretty things and hear curator Kirsten Christensen speak about their discovery.

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Two 16th c. silver vessels found in pre-Inca fortress

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

High in the Andean cloud forest of Peru’s remote Amazonas Region, archaeologists excavating the site of Purunllacta de Soloco have unearthed two silver vessels that lend unique insight into the history of the area in the transitional period after the Spanish conquest. Built by the pre-Inca Chachapoya culture, Purunllacta de Soloco is a thousand-year-old fortress with forbidding stone walls perched on a mountain top covered in jungle vegetation. The site, while known, was excavated by archaeologists for the first time in 2014, and no wonder, since it takes three hours of hard climbing from the town of Chachapoyas to reach the summit.

The cups are ceremonial vessels known as aquillas, used by the Inca in almost every ritual and found all over their former empire. They are 4.4 inches high and 4.6 inches in diameter at the widest point around the rim. They each weigh 152 grams (5.36 ounces) and are made from sheets of relatively thick (.8 – 1mm) silver. They taper to a wide mouth with a straight lip around the rim. They are in excellent condition, with no visible signs of corrosion or any corrosive by-products like carbonates, chlorides and copper oxides. The lack of silver chlorides indicates the percentage of pure silver is very high.

The slightly concave walls are decorated under the rim with a high relief of figures divided into four scenes separated by two parallel vertical lines. Horizontal parallel lines frame the relief top and bottom. Each of the scenes features two characters, male and female, wearing clothes with geometric patterns and hats or headdresses. The characters hold hands, facing outwards. Some of them carry a bag or an axe. There are also points and notches in low relief in the background. The hats are typical of Spanish colonial style and the geometric garments are the traditional dress of the Inca empire.

The decoration was made using a mixture of three techniques: repoussé, embossing and incision. The repoussé was done by wrapping a single sheet of metal around a wooden mold on which the decoration had been carved and hammering the sheet against the molds until the relief transferred. Embossing was done by drawing concave shapes into both sides of the metal with a blunt tool. The incised designs were carved into the outside of the metal sheet. The quality of the relief work is exceptional.

Because of the Spanish influence, archaeologists believe these vessels were carved during the first Spanish occupation of the area between 1536 and 1580. This is the first time silver aquillas have been found at Chachapoya sites. They were not known to have worked in precious of semi-precious metals so it’s probable the vessels were of Inca manufacture rather than made locally. Wood artifacts carved with Inca-style figures dating to 30 years after the Spanish conquest have been recovered from Chachapoya sites before, however, and it’s not entirely impossible that the aquillas were made by Chachapoya artisans influenced by the Inca and Spanish, but the strength of the relief indicates very expert silversmithing that was not native to Chachapoya culture.

The aquillas were found nested into each other inside a hole and were probably ceremonial offerings. A stone building was then constructed above the vessels. The fact that they were made and deposited up to 50 years after the Spanish arrived means that the Andean elites were still practicing traditional rituals for decades after the conquest. It also confirms that both the Inca Empire, which conquered the Chachapoya in the 15th century (a fitful conquest, since the Chachapoya resisted their invaders so consistently for so long that they actually sided with the Spanish when they first arrived), and the Spanish in the 16th century reached the remote, strongly fortified settlement of Purunllacta de Soloco, something archaeologists have believed but found no archaeological evidence of until now.

After they were excavated, the aquillas were sent to the Brüning National Archaeological Museum in Lambayeque for cleaning and conservation. Some kind of organic residue has been found inside the vessels. Researchers will test the substance to identify its makeup. Since the vessels were likely used for ritual purposes before their deliberate burial, whatever they held will tell us more about the ceremony. (The Incas used chicha, fermented corn beer, in their rituals.)

Conservation took three months and is now complete. The aquillas have been officially transferred to the Regional Directorate of Culture of Amazonas who will keep them until they go on display in the new Regional Museum of Chachapoyas which isn’t open yet. The space will need to be modified to display the vessels in ideal climactic conditions and keep them secure.

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Bronze Age gold sun disc on display for first time

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

A gold sun disc discovered in an early Bronze Age grave in 1947 went on public display Friday for the first time in its history. The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes celebrated the Summer Solstice by adding the gold circle about the size of a penny that represents the sun to its permanent exhibition of prehistoric artifacts.

The sun disc is one of only six of its kind ever found in Britain. It was unearthed from a burial mound at Monkton Farleigh in 1947 along with some flint arrowheads, a pottery beaker and pieces of the skeletal remains of an adult male. The grave was discovered by dowser and author Guy Underwood who believed dowsing could be used to locate archaeologically significant sites and whose studies of the alignment of prehistoric British sites evolved into theories about earth energy patterns that would be published after his death in The Pattern of the Past.

Monkton Farleigh is 24 miles or so northwest of Stonehenge and the sun disc dates to around 2,400 B.C. which is about the time when the great sarsen stones were arranged in a circle at Stonehenge (between 2,600-2,400 B.C.). Both the stone circle and the sun disc are connected to ancient solar worship.

The sun-disk is a thin embossed sheet of gold with a cross at the centre, surrounded by a circle. Between the lines of both the cross and the circle are fine dots which glint in sunlight. The disc is pierced by two holes that may have been used to sew the disc to a piece of clothing or a head-dress, and may have been used in pairs.

After its discovery in the 1940s, the sun disc was kept by the property owner (that sort of thing wouldn’t fly today because ancient precious metals would be considered treasure and by law property of the Crown) Dr. Denis Whitehead. After almost 70 years squirreled away — it wasn’t shown to an actual archaeologist until 2013 — the sun disc was donated to the Wiltshire Museum in memory of Dr. Whitehead.

The Wiltshire Museum has a new Prehistoric Wiltshire gallery that includes the gold artifacts unearthed in 1808 from a grave at Bush Barrow one kilometer (.6 miles) south of Stonehenge, most famously a lozenge-shaped sheet of gold about seven inches long incised with geometric decorations that was found on the breastbone of the deceased. The Bush Barrow artifacts — a gold belt buckle, a second much smaller gold lozenge, three copper daggers, a bronze ax, a bronze spearhead, a stone mace with bronze fittings, the remains of a shield, a bone scepter — were on display before at the Wiltshire Museum in the 19th century but security concerns spurred the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society to lend the Bush Barrow gold to the British Museum. After a disastrous restoration in 1985 that irreversibly altered the large lozenge’s shape, the society took the pieces back. Now they and the Monkton Farleigh sun disc are on display together in the new gallery, an exceptional collection of Bronze Age gold.

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Lavau noble buried wearing 1.28-pound gold torc

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

The excavation of the princely tomb from the early 5th c. B.C. unearthed at Lavau in France’s Champagne region was completed a few days ago. Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have now published more about what they found in the richly appointed grave.

The deceased is laid out in the center of the tomb, head oriented south, with his two-wheeled chariot. The prince wears a torc in solid gold weighing 580 grams (1.28 pounds), significantly heavier that 480-gram 24-carat gold torc in the Lady of Vix grave discovered in 1953 about 40 miles south of Lavau. This rigid neck ring is richly decorated in a double motif of winged monster, extended by pear-shaped stamps. On his wrists are gold bracelets while his bicep is encircled by an lignite armlet. Near the nape of his neck are several finely worked amber beads, the remains of a necklace or hair ornament. There are also very rare surviving organic remains from his clothing. Archaeologists found two iron and coral hooks attached to fragments of leather and a row of rivets — remnants of the collar from his top — bodkins and bronze hooks from his shoes.

The largest and most elaborately decorated find — the bronze cauldron three feet in diameter adorned with four circular handles attached to the head of Greek river-god Achelous and eight lion heads around the rim — is part of a wine set that includes the Attic black figure ceramic oinochoe, perforated spoon and smaller bronze vessels found inside the cauldron. It’s Greco-Latin in manufacture and was probably the centerpiece of an aristocratic Celtic banquet.

The Lavau burial has several elements in common with the Lady of Vix, including the huge and hugely fancy banquetware. It dates to around 500 B.C., on the cusp between the end of the Hallstatt and the beginning of the La Tène period. She too was buried with exceptionally rich grave goods of Greek and Celtic extraction: a bronze volute krater of immense size — 5’4″ high, 290 gallon capacity, 450 lbs total weight including base and lid — which is the largest metal vessel from Classical antiquity known to survive, an oinochoe wine jug (although the Vix one was bronze while Lavau’s is black figure ceramic with a gilded rim and foot) a two-wheeled chariot, a heavy gold torc and jewelry with amber beads.

Another slightly later tomb (mid-4th century B.C.), that of the Princess of Reinheim, unearthed near Saargemünd, Germany, just across the border with Lorraine, also has similar grave goods: a gold torc around her neck and gold bangles on each wrist, amber beads by her side (once held in a long-decayed wooden jewelry box, perhaps), and an expensive beverage set composed of a large bronze flagon (1’8″ high), other bronze basins and the remains of gold fixtures thought to be from drinking horns.

The Lady of Vix’s remains were almost completely decomposed. She was deemed a lady because even with all the priceless treasures interred with her none of them are weapons. The same conclusion was drawn from the lack of a weapon in the grave goods of the Princess of Reinheim whose skeletal remains were annihilated by the acidic soil, but modern archaeology is reluctant to draw firm conclusions on sex based on the nature of the grave goods. A knife still in its sheath was found in the Lavau grave, but Celtic women were known to have fought, so we can’t assume the prince is not a princess. The bones that have survived are in very poor condition so it’s not possible to determine the deceased’s sex just by observation. Unlike with the Lady of Vix who was unearthed in 1953, modern archaeology may be able to make the determination by other means (DNA testing, stable isotope analysis).

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Merovingian wine jug found in Denmark cemetery

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the oldest cemetery in Ribe, southwestern Denmark, have discovered an intact Merovingian-era pitcher. It is the only vessel of its type ever found in Denmark and because Ribe, founded in the early 8th century, is not only the oldest extant city in Denmark, but the oldest in Scandinavia, this teapot-sized jug is of disproportionately large historical significance.

The pitcher was found underneath a large upside-down vessel which was cracked and broken. It may have been deliberately placed over the little treasure to protect it, but if it wasn’t, it performed that function anyway, keeping the jug from being damaged or broken over the centuries. When the archaeologists removed the pieces on top of it, they immediately saw they had something special. Danish pottery from the early Middle Ages is black, brown or red. The bright color of this ceramic marked it as imported. When they excavated it fully they were amazed to find a complete piece of such high quality and great age.

Unsure of what exactly they had unearthed, the team consulted with experts who identified it from its features — the clover leaf spout, the shape of the handle — as a trefoil pitcher made during the Merovingian dynasty (circa 450-750 A.D.) in France or Belgium. Unlike domestic ceramics, this pitcher was made on a turntable and fired in a kiln.

Merovingian vessels have also been found in the late 8th century trading settlement of Hedeby, also on the Jutland peninsula but today just across the border in Germany about 80 miles south of Ribe. They are very rare. Out of 2,000 graves excavated in Hedeby, only three of them included Frankish pitchers, none of them of the trefoil type.

“It is a unique find,” said Morten Søvsø, the head of archaeology at Sydvestjyske Museum.

“The pitcher is an example of the finest pottery produced in northern Europe at the time, and it has never been seen before in Denmark. The vessel reveals information about the vast trading network that put Ribe on the map during the Viking era.” [...]

“The jug is a masterpiece from the French or Belgian workshops, and its elegant form is a direct legacy from ancient Roman potters. No pottery at home could technically produce such a thing at the time,” said Søvsø.

Archaeologists couldn’t narrow down the precise date it was made or when it was buried. It was certainly interred more than 1,000 years ago and most likely when Ribe was still new. Archaeologists have long thought that Ribe grew gradually into a city of import, but the discovery of the pitcher suggests there were early connections with the Franks. It could have been traded or the person with whom it was buried was of Frankish origin. According to lead archaeologist Søren Sindbæk, the grave goods found in its cemetery are useful objects that had meaning to the people buried with them, not exotic objects like this pitcher would have been to someone native to the area. If he was a Frank, he must have been well-enough known in Ribe society to garner a formal burial in the cemetery.

The archaeological team is hoping to be able to answer some of the questions about the origin of the pitcher and the person whose grave it adorned by studying the bones found in the grave. Stable isotope analysis of the teeth and bones can narrow down where someone lived in early childhood.

The burial ground has a wide variety of graves from different periods: pre-Christian cremation burials, urn burials, boat burials, Christian inhumations, animal burials. Last year the team unearthed the unique grave of a fully outfitted warhorse and rider from the earliest days of the city. Elite mounted warrior burials have been found before, but they date to the 10th century, the end of the Viking period, while this grave is from the early 8th century almost a hundred years before the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne (793 A.D.).

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Museum acquires St. Albans gold coin hoard

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

The hoard of 159 Roman gold coins discovered near St. Albans, Hertfordshire, in the fall of 2012 has been acquired by St. Albans’ Verulamium Museum. The first 55 coins were unearthed on September 23rd by first-time metal detectorist Wesley Carrington who found the first coin seven inches under the surface just 15 minutes after beginning his search. After consulting with the owner of the shop where he had bought his metal detector, Carrington reported the discovery to his local Finds Liaison Officer. On October 1st, Carrington returned to the site with a team of archaeologists from St. Albans City and District Museums Service and they found another 104 coins.

The coins are all 22-carat gold solidi from the late 4th and early 5th century struck in Milan, Ravenna, Rome, Trier during the reigns of Emperors Gratian, Valentinian II, Theodosius I, Arcadius and Honorius. Although they were found all over the field, archaeologists believe that’s the result of a couple of centuries of farming scattering the cache, that the solidi were originally buried together in a now-lost container. Their rough treatment by one or more ploughs has left surprisingly few marks on the coins. They are in pristine condition.

This is the second largest group of Roman gold solidi found in Britain. The largest was the 565 solidi found in the massive Hoxne Hoard that also contained 14,272 silver coins as well as jewelry and silver dinnerware. The St. Albans Hoard is the largest in Britain composed entirely of gold solidi.

Gold solidi were enormously valuable coins. By law they could not be spent on retail market goods, but only for large purchases and deals like property sales and entire ship’s of goods. Whoever owned these coins was very wealthy, a merchant or a banker. The last coins to arrive in Roman Britain from the continent came in 408 A.D., two years before the army withdrew leaving the province to deal with the descending chaos on its own. One of the ways they coped was to bury their valuables to keep them safe from pillagers until they could reclaim them, which is likely what happened here. It could also have been buried as a sacrifice to the gods, but it’s on the generous side for a votive, to put it mildly.

After the discovery of the hoard, the coins were examined by an independent panel of experts at the British Museum. Based on the panel’s report, a coroner’s inquest in July of 2013 determined that the hoard was treasure according to the UK’s Treasure Act. The British Museum panel then assessed fair market value of the coins at £98,500 ($150,000) and the relevant museum closest to the discovery spot, in this case the Verulamium Museum, was given the opportunity to acquire it for that amount.

They raised it and then some. Thanks to a sizeable Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £105,000, £24,000 from an overseas benefactor who prefers to remain anonymous, £11,000 from the St. Albans Museums and Galleries Trust and £6,000 from the Council, the museum was able to secure the hoard and some funding to create a display worthy of their rarity and beauty. The coins will go on display at the museum in September.

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2,000-year-old round pearl found in shell midden

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

In 2011, archaeologists from the University of Wollongong (UOW) and the University of New England (UNE) excavating the Brremangurey Rockshelter on the north Kimberley coast of Western Australia discovered a pearl in the site’s shell midden. The rockshelter was used by Indigenous peoples for more than 12,000 years, as attested by rock art and shell middens. The pearl was found in a layer of marine shell that radiocarbon dating found was 1800-1906 years old. It is the only pearl known to have been recovered from a prehistoric archaeological site in Australia.

The unique find caused much excitement in the community because of the area’s rich pearling history. The harvest of natural South Sea pearls from the large oyster species Pinctada maxima was a major industry along the Kimberley Coast in the 19th century, and while those beds collapsed more than a century ago, since the introduction of the Japanese techniques of pearl culturing in the 1950s, the coastline has been a center of pearl production.

The marine pearl is small but comely at 5.9mm in maximum diameter and weighing a quarter of a gram. Its petite size, warm golden-rose color and almost spherical shape are characteristic features of a cultured Akoya pearl rather than a natural South Sea pearl. Local pearl experts thought it more likely to be an intrusive cultured pearl that somehow made its way into an ancient midden pile instead of the one and only prehistoric pearl ever found in Australia. Indeed, tests on the midden pile found that some of the deposits had experienced significant time-averaging and downward movement of shell layers.

In order to determine the pearl’s true nature, the archaeological team had to eschew the usual analytic methodologies like radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis because they result in the destruction of samples. Instead they teamed up with Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm to do a comparative analysis of a cultured Akoya pearls with the Brremangurey pearl using non-invasive X-ray computed microtomography to capture the pearls’ inner architecture. They scanned three Cygnet Bay pearls — two seeded in 2010 and harvested in 2012, one keshi pearl that grew without a bead — and the Brremangurey pearl.

The scans left no doubt whatsoever that the Brremangurey pearl is natural. The CT scans of the seeded pearls showed a very clear homogeneous spherical nucleus (the bead made of crushed and compacted Mississippi mussel shells) wrapped in two relatively thick layers of nacre, one per year of growth. The Brremangurey pearl has a much smaller nucleus and 14 thin layers of nacre. There is no pearl farmer in his right mind willing to wait 14 years for a six millimeter pearl to grow, nor has this ever been a practice in the history of pearl culturing.

The nucleus is also very different. Like the cultured bead, it is almost spherical, but that’s just a fluke. A separate scan of the nucleus itself underscored how different its structure is to the beads of the cultured pearls. Instead of being a solid homogeneous material, it has a tiny hollow center — a cyst formed as a result of damage to the edge of the mantle — surrounded by rays of calcium carbonate terminating in an exterior surface the published paper describes evocatively as “pustolose.” That surface was then wrapped in layer of nacre. That’s how natural pearls form.

“This analysis confirmed that it was a natural pearl that had grown inside a small pearl oyster for over a decade before the animal was harvested for eating,” [PhD student and co-author of the study Brent Koppel] said.

Although there are no records to suggest that pearls are of cultural significance to Indigenous peoples of the Kimberley, the pearl oyster shells which produce them are very important. The shells formed the basis of a historically-recorded trade which stretched from the Kimberley to the Central Desert. It is likely that the pearl at Brremangurey is a by-product of pearl shell collection. The great numbers of pearl shells within certain layers of the shell midden at Brremangurey suggests that the shells’ cultural value extends well back into prehistory.

You can read the paper about the pearl study here (pdf). The Brremangurey pearl will go on public display along with some of those highly significant prehistoric pearl shells in the Lustre: Pearling & Australia exhibition which opens on June 20th at the Western Australian Maritime Museum.

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Scythian gold vessels found with opium, cannabis residue

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Gold vessels found in a Scythian burial mound in the Caucasus Mountains near Strovopol, southwestern Russia, have traces of cannabis and opium inside them. The artifacts were discovered in the summer of 2013 when kurgan Sengileevskoe-2 was being excavated in advance of power-line construction. Archaeologist Andrei Belinski didn’t expect to find anything of note — the kurgan had already been looted — but after a few weeks of digging, the team encountered a thick layer of clay. Underneath the clay was a rectangular chamber lined with flat stones that held a treasure trove of 2,400-year-old solid gold artifacts.

The trove consists of two gold bucket-shaped vessels turned upside down on top of three gold cups with holes in their bases, a heavy gold ring, two neck rings and a bracelet. Their total weight is 3.2 kilos (seven pounds). Seeing a black residue at the bottom of the vessels, Belinksi had forensic criminologists in Strovopol analyze the substance. It tested positive for opium and cannabis, providing archaeological evidence for a practice mentioned by ancient Greek historian of dubious accuracy Herodotus.

Herodotus gives an account in Book IV of his History of Scythians using hemp in a purification ritual after the funeral of a king.

After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed. [...]

The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.

The elaborate decoration on one of the upside down gold vessels may also tie into one of Herodotus’ anecdotes. At the beginning of Book IV, he describes the Schythian warriors returning home after 28 years of war in Persia to find that their wives gave up on them years ago and had children with their slaves instead. The sons, knowing they would not be accepted by the cuckolded husbands, attempted to block their return. They were successful at first, winning battle after battle, but soon they were overcome by the mere symbols of their slave heritage.

“What are we doing, Scythians? We are fighting our slaves, diminishing our own number when we fall, and the number of those that belong to us when they fall by our hands. Take my advice — lay spear and bow aside, and let each man fetch his horsewhip, and go boldly up to them. So long as they see us with arms in our hands, they imagine themselves our equals in birth and bravery; but let them behold us with no other weapon but the whip, and they will feel that they are our slaves, and flee before us.”

The Scythians followed this counsel, and the slaves were so astounded, that they forgot to fight, and immediately ran away.

This conflict became known as the Bastard Wars. One of the vessels has a scene of an older bearded man slaying a young warrior, a possible reference to the Bastard Wars. Andrei Belinski thinks the imagery isn’t referring to a specific battle, but is more likely to be a metaphoric representation of chaos in the wake of a king’s death, an appropriate subject for royal grave goods. It would be more in keeping with the decoration of another vessel: a mythological scene of griffons tearing apart a horse and stag in what may be the Scythian underworld.

The high quality of the decoration on the solid gold pieces suggests they were made for royalty. The designs are exquisitely detailed.

To archaeologists, the information contained in the images on the gold is exciting. From the warriors’ shoes to their haircuts, the depictions are amazingly lifelike. “I’ve never seen such a detailed representation of the clothing and weaponry of the Scythians,” says Belinski. “It’s so detailed you can see how the clothing was sewn.”

The excavation of the kurgan was completed last fall, but archaeologists are hoping to return to excavate the network of trenches and earthen rings circling the mound which may indicate a ceremonial complex built around the central mound.

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