Garnet stone emerges from Harpole cross

Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) archaeologists have revealed a large garnet at the center of the silver cross from the exceptionally wealthy 7th century bed burial found at Harpole, Northamptonshire, England.

Discovered last April, the burial of an elite Saxon-era woman contained an ornate necklace with an unprecedented number of pendants made of garnets, semi-precious stones, Roman gold coins (all from the reign of Theodosius I, 379-395 A.D.) and glass pendants separated by gold wire spacer beads. The necklace is the largest, finest and most ornate example of its kind.

Another uniquely large and elaborate artifact was found on the torso of the deceased. It was removed in a soil block to be excavated in a conservation laboratory. An X-ray of the soil block revealed it contained a huge silver cross mounted on wood. The cross is too big to have been worn as a jewel. It may have been meant to be carried in processions or used as a devotional object on an altar.

The cross is a foot long from top to bottom and is adorned with more crosses. There are Canterbury crosses 4 cm (1.6 inches) wide at the end of the cross-arms arm and the bottom of the descending arm. At the center point of the crossarm is an equal-armed cross 8 cm (3.15 inches) wide. Between each of the arms of the central cross are oval human faces cast in silver with blue glass eyes.

MOLA conservators are currently micro-excavating the soil block, using the X-ray as a guide map. While the arms are still encased in soil, the square stone at the center has now been exposed. It is a pyramid square cabochon garnet and judging from the photograph, it is in excellent condition.

The burial dates to between 630 and 670 A.D. At that time, Harpole was part of the Kingdom of Mercia which was smack in the middle of converting to Christianity. The first introduction of Christianity to Mercia came in 628 when the pagan King Penda conquered Christian Saxon-held territories. Penda’s son Peada sealed the deal in 655 when he converted to Christianity and agreed to evangelize and convert his subjects as a condition of his marriage to Alchflaed, the daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria.

The woman buried in this grave had to have been Christian and someone of very high social status to boot. The size of the cross suggests she may have been a religious leader.

4001 Roman coins on display 50+ years after discovery

The Treasure of Garonne, an assemblage of 4001 Roman coins that went down with a shipwreck in the 2nd century A.D., has gone on display at the Museum of Aquitaine Bordeux. This is the first time all 4001 coins have been exhibited to the public. The coins are sestertii made of orichalcum, a brass-like alloy of zinc and copper, ranging in date from the reign of the Emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.) to that of Antoninus Pius (138-161 A.D.). It is the largest and most significant Roman coin treasure in France.

The first coins from the treasure were discovered accidentally in 1965 during dredging works on the Garonne river. Former University of Bordeaux professor Robert Étienne recognized that there were likely more coins to be found and organized a series of systematic excavations at several sites on the river over the next six years. Coins have continued to turn up in the decades since, donated by individuals and institutions, some even found at private construction sites trapped in sand from the Garonne that was being used as aggregate. One of the museum’s conservators found a coin when he was a child and he donated it so it could join its brethren in the comprehensive exhibition. The most recent donation of an orichalcum coin from the Treasure of the Garonne was just last month.

Charred pieces of wood found in the initial discovery indicate the coins were on a merchant ship traveling upriver from Burdigala (modern-day Bordeaux) between 170 and 176 A.D. The vessel caught fire and sank with its cargo, including thousands of orichalcum sestertii, many of which were visibly altered by contact with the fire. Estimates based on the ship’s cargo size suggest as many as 800 coins are still unaccounted for, snapped up by souvenir hunters during the initial find, embedded in the sediment still on the river bed or inadvertently built into random walls.

Recording and studying the massive number of coins has taken decades, which is why the complete treasure has never been on display until now. The coins have been invaluable in answering questions about the composition of orichalcum, particularly its zinc content and how it changed from the first century to the end of the second.

Roman gold earring recategorizes earlier finds

A Roman gold earring discovered by a metal detectorist in Burston, Norfolk, last Christmas Eve, has been declared treasure and will go on display at the Diss Museum, an award-winning local museum occupying two former historic butcher shops in Norfolk. This small gold disc weighing a total 2.2 grams is also helping archaeologists redefine earlier such discoveries.

When Nick Bateman first unearthed the earring in a field, he thought it was an old bottle cap. When he cleaned it a little he saw that it was gold and definitely not a bottle cap. He reported it to the authorities and the piece was examined by a coin expert from the Norfolk Historic Environment Service.

The earring is circular, 20.5 mm (.8 inches) in diameter and was formed by two gold sheets of different thicknesses soldered together. Both sides are decorated with a relief in repoussé technique (pushed out from the back) of what appears to be an eagle on a ground line formed of six dots on top of a downward-pointing crescent. The eagle is encircled by a wreath and a cross is visible between the points of the crescent on one side of the earring. It is no longer visible on the other side, but must have been there originally as the decoration is the same on both sides.

There is a d-shaped projection with a perforation, but it is not at the top of the pendant. It is at the bottom, a suspension loop for a secondary pendant hanging from the gold disc. Part of the top side of the earring is missing. This damaged area must have been perforated or otherwise contained the mount which would have hung from the ear.

There are no exact matches for this design on the archaeological record. A similar gold disc formed by two thin gold sheets joined together and decorated with a repoussé relief is the closest cognate. It too was found in Norfolk and it was crumpled, but it has no pendant loop and the decoration is so hard to make out that it was categorized as an unknown with a few superficial features in common with Anglo-Saxon bracteate pendants. The discovery of the earring has now resulted in its unknown cousin being dated to the Roman period (43-409 A.D.), and similar finds are also being reevaluated in the wake of the Burston piece.

“A colleague thought it was medieval as he could see a tiny cross under one of the loops,” [numismatist Adrian Marsden] said.

“But when I looked closely I could see a laurel wreath and an eagle and that’s exactly the sort of thing you get on Roman objects.

“Other artefacts like this had gone down as medieval, so it does show you need to keep your wits about you when you examine these things.”

Judge hits Herefordshire Viking hoard looters where it hurts

George Powell and Layton Davies, the metal detecting looters who stole the Herefordshire Viking hoard, will have to pay through the nose for their greed. Convicted of theft and concealment in 2019, Powell and Davies were sentenced to long prison terms (10 years and 8.5 years respectively). Now a judge has ordered them to cough up more than £600,000 apiece within three months or an additional five years will be added to their sentences.

The hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins, jewelry and silver ingots, buried in the late 9th century, was discovered in 2015 in a field in Eye, near Leominster, Herefordshire, on private property which Powell and Davies did not have permission to scan. They hid the find and made arrangements to sell this archaeological treasure on the black market. By the time authorities became aware of it (thanks to these clowns posting a picture on a metal detecting website of the hoard in situ), most of the coins and all but one ingot were scattered to the four winds. Only 29 of the estimated 300 coins were recovered, a tragic loss considering that the few remaining coins contain extremely rare “Two-Emperor” pennies commemorating an alliance between Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia.

Coin dealer Simon Wicks who fenced some of their loot was also convicted of concealment and sentenced to five years in jail. Judge Nicholas Cartwright believes the that Powell and Davies are still holding out on the authorities, that they are still hiding the 270 missing coins or that they at least know where they are. That’s why he’s hitting them in the only place they care about: their wallets.

When the men were sentenced, the judge said that if they had obtained the correct permission they would have gone on to receive up to half the £3m value of the hoard between them.

He said he rejected their accounts that the items were with other people and an auction house in Austria and said the men deliberately stole items.

“They acted together dishonestly. They jointly stole the items and jointly intended to split and sell the bracelet,” Judge Cartwright said.

The 29 coins, one silver ingot, a gold arm bangle with a clasp in the shape of a beast head, a rock crystal sphere encased in an ornately decorated openwork gold frame-like cage believed to be of Frankish manufacture and a gold octagonal ring with black niello inlay are what remains of the hoard at this time. The group is currently on display at Hereford’s Museum Resource and Learning Centre and thanks to a successful fundraising campaign, it will stay in Herefordshire. Funds have been allocated to redevelop the Hereford Museum and Art Gallery (HMAG) into a state-of-the-art cultural destination and the Viking hoard will be its centerpiece.

Bronze Age shipwreck tin came from remote Uzbekistan mine

Metallurgical analysis of tin ingots found on a fabulously wealthy Late Bronze Age (ca. 1320 B.C.) shipwreck found off the coast of Uluburun, Turkey, has revealed that a full third of the tin was sourced from a remote shepherding region in Uzbekistan, more than 2,000 miles away from Haifa where the ship set sail. That means small pastoralist communities in the Central Asian highlands also ran local mining operations that connected to vast international trade networks linking Bronze Age Europe, Africa and the Near East.

The shipwreck was discovered in 1982 by a sponge diver plying his trade in the Mediterranean waters off Uluburun. He spotted oxhide ingots (rectangular in shape with four handles in the corner that give them the appearance of a hide) and reported them as “metal biscuits with ears,” a description as charming as it is accurate. Institute of Nautical Archaeology divers confirmed the find and dated the wreck to the Late Bronze Age.

Resting on a slope between 140 and 170 feet below the surface, the wreck posed a significant challenge to excavate. Dives were limited to 20 minutes at a time during a three-month season. It took eleven consecutive diving campaigns from 1984 until 1994 for a total of 22,413 individual dives to explore the wreck and recover the cargo. The final tally was a jaw-dropping 17 tons of cargo, more than 18,000 artifacts from luxury finished goods for the elitest of the elite to stone tools to raw materials. It is one of the largest and wealthiest Bronze Age assemblages ever found and was sourced from 11 different civilizations including the Egyptian, Canaanite, Syrian, Nubian and Mycenaean cultures.

The bulk of the cargo consisted of copper and tin ingots in a ratio of 10:1, the exact proportion needed to smelt bronze, and an enormous quantity of it. This one ship was carrying enough copper and tin to make 5,000 swords.

A brief non-comprehensive summary of its contents:

  • 10 tons of Cypriot copper in 354 slab ingots, 317 of them in the usual oxhide shape, 31 in a similar form but with only two protrusions on the long side (a shape unique to the Uluburun ship), 121 cake or bun-shaped ingots.
  • One ton of tin in oxhide and bun ingots.
  • 149 Canaanite amphorae filled with, among other things, many colors of glass beads, olives and terebinth resin (a fragrant oil burned as incense). This is the largest deposit of ancient terebinth ever found.
  • 175 flat, circular glass ingots in cobalt blue, turquoise, amber and lavender (NB: before glass blowing was invented, glass was made by melting ingots and pouring the liquid glass into molds.)
    Raw ivory (elephant tusks, 14 hippopotamus teeth)
  • 18 African blackwood logs, so highly favored by the Egyptian elite for their furniture and wood accessory needs that their word for it “hbny” has come down to us 3,500 years later as the English “ebony.”
  • Thousands of murex (sea snails from which the famed Tyrian purple dye was derived) shells.
  • Large ceramic storage jars (pithoi), some packed with Cypriot pottery (oil lamps, jugs, bowls) made for export, others with fruits and other foodstuffs including olive oil, almonds, pine nuts, figs, grapes, pomegranates, olives and spices like coriander, nigella and safflower.
  • One large gold chalice weighing 236 grams.
  • A small gold scarab inscribed with the name of Nefertiti, queen consort of Pharaoh Ahkenaten. This is the only gold scarab of Nefertiti ever discovered.

The cargo recovered from Uluburun is part of the permanent collection of the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology where it is displayed in a reconstruction of the wreck. The assemblage is a unique and invaluable source of information about Late Bronze Age trade, industry, economics and technology, even how hulls of merchant ships were packed for their long voyages. Analyses of the Uluburun materials continue to this day.

One of the questions researchers have long sought to answer is the source of the tin. Tin is scarce in the Mediterranean, and you can’t make bronze without it, so how were these giant Bronze Age empires and kingdoms supplying the high demand for so scarce a material? Up until recently, metallurgical analysis has not been able to pinpoint the source of Bronze Age tin. Thanks to decades of data collection on the composition of tin ore from different locations around the world, scientists were able to use isotope analysis to narrow down the origin of the Uluburun ingots: one third of it came from the Mušiston mine in Uzbekistan, two thirds from the Kestel mine in ancient Anatolia. Kestel was under the control of the Hittite Empire in the Late Bronze Age, a powerful centralized state that could afford and arrange major mining and transport operations. Uzbeki shepherds had no such resources.

[The research team’s] findings unveiled a shockingly complex supply chain that involved multiple steps to get the tin from the small mining community to the Mediterranean marketplace.

“It appears these local miners had access to vast international networks and—through overland trade and other forms of connectivity—were able to pass this all-important commodity all the way to the Mediterranean,” [Michael Frachetti, professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis] said.

“It’s quite amazing to learn that a culturally diverse, multiregional and multivector system of trade underpinned Eurasian tin exchange during the Late Bronze Age.”

Adding to the mystique is the fact that the mining industry appears to have been run by small-scale local communities or free laborers who negotiated this marketplace outside of the control of kings, emperors or other political organizations, Frachetti said.

“To put it into perspective, this would be the trade equivalent of the entire United States sourcing its energy needs from small backyard oil rigs in central Kansas,” he said.

The study has been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read in its entirety here.