Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Pendant found in Bulgaria is among oldest known gold jewelry

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Bronze Age site of Solnitsata near the northeastern Bulgarian town of Provadiya have discovered what may be some of the oldest known worked gold in Europe. It’s a small pendant made of two ounces of what archaeologists estimate is 24-carat gold although it hasn’t been assayed yet. It was found in a necropolis dating to around 4,300 B.C., but lead archaeologist Professor Vasil Nikolov believes the piece could be 200-300 years older.

The earliest known gold hoard in the world was unearthed about 23 miles east of this settlement in a prehistoric necropolis in the Black Sea resort town of Varna in 1973. Radiocarbon testing dates the Varna tombs to around 4560-4450 B.C., so the Solnitsata piece is at least contemporary with the Varna gold and may be older. Unlike the Varna riches, however, this wee pendant was not found in a grave.

“What’s interesting regarding the gold jewel that we have found now is that it was discovered not inside one of the graves but between them, which might testify to some kind of a more special ritual. In any case, this jewel is another specimen of the art of jewelry making that was developed at the time,” the lead archaeologist elaborates.

He notes that the term “jewel” might not be the most precise one for the gold item found near Bulgaria’s Provadiya because it was not worn as a decoration but as a status symbol.

The Solnitsata settlement was immensely prosperous thanks to the salt trade. Salt processing at the site began in the Late Neolithic (about 5500 B.C.) when brine from salt water springs was boiled in small, thin-walled ceramic vases and baked into blocks in large domed kilns. The production of salt increased markedly in the Middle Chalcolithic (4700-4500 B.C.) through the Late Chalcolithic (4500-4200 B.C.) when the method of extraction shifted to boiling brine in large ceramic vases placed inside deep, open-air pits up to 10 meters (33 feet) wide. This allowed salt to be produced on an industrial scale and salt blocks were traded locally and throughout the Balkans on pack animals or possibly sleds. There was no wheel yet, so no carts were involved.

The settlement, which archaeologists estimate had a population of 350 people at its peak, was fortified with wood palisades and earthworks in the Late Neolithic and then strengthened during the Chalcolithic with stone walls whose bases were as much as 13 feet thick. By then the Solnitsata salt complex was producing an eye-watering 4,000 to 5,000 kilos (8,800 to 11,000 pounds) of dry salt at a time (the Neolithic kilns produced about 25 kilos or 55 pounds of salt in one load). At a time when salt was highly valued as the only means of food preservation, the small Solnitsata settlement might as well have been a mint. That’s why they needed such thick walls, to Fort Knoxify the place.

Given that their neighbors in Varna were mining copper and gold at the time, you might expect the salt-based wealth of Solnitsata to result in burials with similar valuables, but the little pendant is the first gold excavated at the site and it wasn’t a grave good.

It’s one of several exciting finds at the site. The exploration of the masonry fortifications is of particular interest as Solnitsata’s defensive wall is the oldest stone fortress in the world. Professor Nikolov explains:

“The [fortress] wall that we are unearthing right now shows that the fortress had a shape of a circle with a diameter of about 90 meters. It is interesting that back then the people had valuable knowledge about military affairs. In order to ensure a better defense, the wall was not made round but its sections follow straight lines. That’s because the round shape would have been harder to defend.”


Roman coin hoard found in Swiss cherry orchard

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Farmer Alfred Loosli was walking through in his cherry orchard in Ueken in the northern Swiss canton of Aargau last year when he saw a green coin contrasted against the rich brown of the soil. At first the he assumed someone had lost it, but then he found another five. This July, Loosli poked a molehill under one of his cherry trees and found another 19 bronze coins. He asked his son to research the coins to see if they might be ancient, remembering that in 2013 a Roman settlement was discovered in the nearby city of Frick.

They called the authorities and in September canton archaeologists began to excavate the site. The excavation was kept secret to keep looters from interfering with the site when the archaeologists weren’t around, and it was productive beyond all expectations. By the end of the dig earlier this month, archaeologists had recovered 4155 Roman coins for a total weight of 33 pounds in just a few square meters. At least some of the coins were buried in cloth and leather bags and probably they all were only the bags have disintegrated.

The hoard in now at the Vindonissa Museum in Brugg where conservators are painstakingly cleaning the coins. Swiss numismatist Hugo Doppler has examined the 200 coins cleaned thus far and has identified them as Antoniniani minted by emperors Aurelian (270-275), Tacitus (275-276), Probus (276-282), Carinus (283-285) Diocletian (284-305) Maximianus (286-305). The most recent were minted in 294 A.D. They are in exceptional condition. Hopper believes they were taken out of circulation almost immediately after minting.

The Antoninianius coin is named after the emperor Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus) who first introduced the denomination in 215 A.D. as a silver piece worth two denarii, but because it only contained 1.5 denarii worth of silver, people raised prices and hoarded the coins causing rampant inflation. The Antoninianius became increasingly debased until by the reign of Emperor Gallienus in 268, the silver content was a meager 4%. Aurelian bumped it back up to 5%, but even that small boost was short-lived. At the end of the 3rd century, the Antoninianius was almost entirely bronze and considered worthless. People just threw them away.

The 200 coins from the cherry orchard hoard, however, are all of particularly high silver content, about 5% silver. Hugo Doppler believes the owner of the hoard deliberately chose the coins with the highest silver content because they “would have guaranteed a certain value conservation in a time of economic uncertainty.” In a rural area like Ueken, there would have been no banks to put valuables in, and the area was subject to several Germanic incursions. Burying bags of relatively high silver content coins underground was a reliable method of keeping the treasure safe.

Significant hoards like these have been unearthed many times in Britain, but are much rarer in Switzerland. Only four Roman coin hoards of more than 4,000 pieces have been found in Switzerland. Two were discovered a century ago; the third was found last year in Orselina, 150 miles south of Ueken near the Italian border.

The hoard will continue to be cleaned and examined. Doppler suspects there may be more exciting discoveries among the coins, like previously unknown mints and denominations. The hoard will eventually be put on public display at the Vindonissa Museum alongside other Roman artifacts discovered at the Frick excavation and elsewhere in the area.


Rich Western Han Dynasty cemetery unearthed

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Chinese archaeologists have unearthed the largest, most complete and best preserved Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.) cemetery near Nanchang, the capital of eastern China’s Jiangxi Province. The cemetery has only eight tombs, but they’re huge, covering 40,000 square meters (430,556 square feet or about 10 acres). The largest tomb has a chariot burial with walls almost 900 meters (2,953 feet) long. Excavations of the site began five years ago but the discoveries were only announced earlier this month, with new finds still coming in.

The site is a city of the dead, with memorial temples, roads and drainage systems structured around the tombs. The tombs are the most intact Western Han yet found, their layout exceptionally clear. The chariot burial is exceptional. There are five chariots, each with four horses sacrificed in a funerary ritual, and more than 3,000 artifacts and fittings decorated with gold and silver. It is the only tomb found south of Yangtze River to have real chariots, or real vehicles of any kind, for that matter.

And that’s just the beginning of the wealth discovered in these tombs. The main tomb was found to hold more than 10 tons of Wuzhu bronze coins, more than two million individual pieces. The coins date to the reigns of three Western Han emperors: Emperor Wu (141-87 B.C.), Emperor Zhao (87-74 B.C.) and Emperor Xuan (74-49 B.C.). Most of the coins were in a pile, but archaeologists found six strands of 1,000 coins each. Ancient sources reference 1,000 low-value Wuzhu coins being strung together via the square hole in the center to create a larger denomination. Based on the documentary evidence, this monetary adaptation was thought to have started in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), but no archaeological evidence of it has been found before. The discovery of six intact groups of 1,000 coins strung together on hemp ropes confirms the historical sources and pushes back the date of the practice at least 600 years. To give an idea of the value, the ancient documents say that ten of the strings could be exchanged for one Jin (250 grams) of gold. Ten Jin was the total net worth of a middle-class family in the Western Han Dynasty.

So far, the excavation of the cemetery has unearthed more than 10,000 artifacts, including bronze mirrors, bells, cooking pots, wine vessels and two exceptional lamps shaped like geese with fish in their beaks which in addition to being beautiful are also practical. The candle was held in the mouth of the goose so that smoke would enter the goose’s body through the fish. The goose lamp’s belly would be filled with water and the trapped smoke would dissolve into it like a one-way bong. (The geese don’t exhale.) They’ve also found jade objects, wood tablets, bamboo slips and musical instruments, among them a se (a plucked zither with 25 strings), pan flutes and sheng (a mouth-blown reed pipe instrument). There are also terracotta figurines known as Kuregaku figurines depicting how the instruments were played.

Then there’s the lacquer screen. It was broken into vertical painted panels. One of the panels has a portrait of a man who archaeologists believe may be Confucius. If they’re right, it will be the earliest known portrait of Confucius found in China. There are pictures of the screen in situ here and video of it here. Fair warning: you can’t see the portrait at all. You can’t even tell it’s a screen, frankly.

But wait! There’s more! On Tuesday archaeologists struck gold, specifically, 25 gold ingots shaped like hooves and 50 large and heavy gold coins. This is the greatest amount of gold ever discovered in a Han Dynasty tomb.

While the identity of the dignitary buried in the largest tomb has yet to be conclusively established, archaeologists believe it was Liu He, the grandson Emperor Wu, the Han dynasty greatest’s emperor who reigned for 54 years (141-87 B.C.). Liu He did not take after his venerable and supremely competent grandfather. He reigned for a mere 27 days, from July 18th to August 14th 74 B.C., before being deposed by the Dowager Empress Shangguan and court officials on 1127 charges of misconduct, most of them revolving around his sexing, feasting, hunting and all-around partying when he was supposed to be in mourning for his uncle, the deceased emperor. He was replaced by Emperor Xuan, the great-grandson of Emperor Wu, who had been raised a commoner after his father and grandfather died when the latter was falsely accused of practicing witchcraft against Emperor Wu.

Liu He was stripped of his titles after he was impeached, but in 63 B.C. Emperor Xuan was persuaded to make him the Marquess of Haihun which had the added advantage of shipping a potential rival away from the capital of his former principality (modern-day Jining) 900 miles south to the modern-day Jiangxi province. He died four years later in 59 B.C. The Haihunhou cemetery is named after the title, which in turn was a feudal descendant of a small kingdom that had once ruled the north of Jiangxi.

Lead archaeologist Li Xiaobin of the China National Museum, who has studied an impressive 4,000 Han Dynasty tombs, hopes the question of who the main tomb was built for will be answered when the sealed coffin in the central mausoleum is opened. If there’s a royal seal or jade accoutrements, that would identify the occupant as an emperor and may even identify him by name. If it is Liu He, it’s probable his wife occupies one of the other tombs and other family members or high-ranking nobles the remaining six.

The regional culture ministry has set up a number of laboratories so that researchers can examine the enormous quantity of artifacts recovered according to their relevant fields — archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, metallurgy, textile studies. Vice Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie wants the site to be excavated with an eye to a future application for the cemetery to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.


1000-year-old silver hoard found on Danish island

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Robert Hemming Poulsen lays fiber-optic cable for a living. For fun, he takes his metal detector with him on assignments and explores new places in his downtime. Last month Poulsen was installing a fiber-optic network on the Danish island of Omø when he struck up conversation with farmer Hans Peder Tofte. Tofte told him that as a boy he had found a silver ring on his property. Intrigued, Robert took his metal detector to the field and discovered several silver fragments and silver coins.

An experienced and responsible amateur, Poulsen stopped the search and alerted the Zealand Museum to his finds. With funding from the Danish Agency for Culture, the museum arranged for a more thorough exploration of the field. Last weekend museum experts joined Robert Poulsen and three of his experienced metal detecting friends to search the site. They discovered more than 550 silver fragments, silver coins, cuttings from silver coins and silver jewelry from the 10th century. This was an all-silver hoard.

All of the artifacts were unearthed in an area about 100 feet in diameter suggesting they were originally buried in a single hoard. The field has been ploughed for hundreds of years, however, so if there was a container, it has long since been destroyed and/or rotted away. The team dug beneath the ploughed soil just in case, but all they found was clean sand. There are no indications of an individual house or settlement in the area. It appears that the treasure was simply buried in a field.

While most of the hoard is composed of fragments of hacksilver as small as .1 grams, including tiny cuttings of Arabic coins called dirham clips, it has a number of rare and important pieces. There are multiple coins from the reign of Harald Bluetooth. Minted between 975 and 980 A.D, the Harald Bluetooth cross-coins are considered the first Danish coins. They are so thin that the design on one side shows through on the other, and the silver content and weight are so low that metal detectors can’t detect them. Any find of Bluetooth coins, therefore, is always archaeologically significant.

Besides the Arabic and Danish coins, the hoard also contains silver coins from England, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. Some coins have yet to be identified. Three unidentified coins were found in an unusual configuration: one coin folded over the other two. Similar pieces have been found before in England, but they’re from later in the Middle Ages and the they have one complete coin folded over a half coin thereby created a one-and-a-half denomination. All three of Omø coins in this configuration are complete.

The jewelry is all in pieces. Among the fragments of bracelets, rings and pendants are two objects of particular interest: a cross and pendant that are decorated in the same style as an important hoard of jewelry discovered on the German Baltic Sea island of Hiddensee in 1873. The Hiddensee treasure dates to the 10th century and is believed to have belonged to the family of Harald Bluetooth himself. The difference is the Hiddensee jewelry is all made of gold, while the pieces found on Omø are silver. That makes them unique. No other silver Hiddensee-type jewelry has been found before.

By Danish law, historical finds are treasure trove and property of the state. The Zealand Museum will thoroughly document and photograph every piece before sending them to the National Museum for valuation by experts. Finder Robert Poulsen will receive a reward based on the value of the hoard. The Zealand Museum hopes they will then get the hoard back for exhibition, but that depends on whether the National Museum deems its security measures sufficient to protect the find.


Bronze Age tomb groaning with riches found in Greece

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Archaeologists digging near the ancient city of Pylos in the Peloponnese region of southwestern Greece have unearthed a richly laden tomb dating to around 1,500 B.C. Led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, the international team was excavating a previously unexplored field next to the Palace of Nestor. They chose to dig in a place where three stones were visible on the ground, thinking they were the remains of a Bronze Age house. They soon realized those stones were the top of a shaft tomb. After two weeks of digging, archaeologists hit gold, figuratively, that is. Literally they hit bronze, but that was just the beginning.

Inside a shaft tomb about five feet deep, four feet wide and eight feet long was the skeleton of an adult male and an eye-popping collection of grave goods. To the left of his chest was a sword three feet long with an ivory hilt overlaid with gold. Underneath the sword was a dagger with a gold hilt in the same embroidery-like technique found on the long sword. To his right were jewels, among them a hoard of more than 1,000 beads of carnelian, amethyst, gold, agate, jasper and gold, most of them drilled through so they could be strung together. Small fragments of a cross-woven textile suggests some of the beads decorated a burial shroud. Near the beads were four solid gold rings, the most that have ever been discovered in a single burial in Greece, plus six silver cups and an assortment of bronze vessels, some with gold or silver trim.

On his chest were two squashed gold cups and a silver cup with a gold rim. By his neck was a unique gold necklace 30-inches long with a box weave chain and finials in a sacral ivy pattern. At his legs and feet were more bronze weapons, including a sword and spearhead, and thin bronze strips likely to be the remains of a suit of armor on top of his body. (Many of the grave goods were placed on top of his coffin when he was buried. When the wood of the coffin decayed, those goods settled on and around the warrior.

Other assorted finds include: a bronze mirror with an ivory handle, more than 50 seal stones intricately carved with Minoan designs of deities, lions, bulls and bull dancers vaulting over the animal’s horns, carved ivory pieces including a griffon and a lion attacking a griffon and six ivory combs.

Before this find, graves this rich were only found in the archaeological site of Mycenae, one of the great military centers of early Greece after which the period (1600 – 1100 B.C.) of its dominance is named. Pylos was thought to be a bit of a backwater compared to the grand city of 30,000, but the ultra-rich graves of Mycenae were multiple burials. The discovery of the wealthiest single burial in ever found in Greece in Pylos means historians may have to revise their understanding of the town’s ancient importance.

Another archaeological boon from this discovery is that we know all the grave goods belong to this one man. The multiple burials made it difficult for archaeologists to identify which artifacts belonged to which person. One hypothesis was that the grave goods could be divided by gender — men get the weapons, women get the combs and beads — but this discovery shows that a gender division doesn’t work because the man was buried with every kind of artifact under the sun.

There was no name or identifying information in the grave, but the burial is older than the palace of Nestor which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C., so these are not the remains of a Homeric hero.

Explains Stocker, “This latest find is not the grave of the legendary King Nestor, who headed a contingent of Greek forces at Troy in Homer’s Iliad. Nor is it the grave of his father, Neleus. This find may be even more important because the warrior pre-dates the time of Nestor and Neleus by, perhaps, 200 or 300 years. That means he was likely an important figure at a time when this part of Greece was being indelibly shaped by close contact with Crete, Europe’s first advanced civilization.”

Thus, the tomb may have held a powerful warrior or king — or even a trader or a raider — who died at about 30 to 35 years of age but who helped to lay the foundations of the Mycenaean culture that later flourished in the region.

Davis speculates, “Whoever he was, he seems to have been celebrated for his trading or fighting in nearby island of Crete and for his appreciation of the more-sophisticated and delicate are of the Minoan civilization (found on Crete), with which he was buried.”

The team found the tomb in May, but the discovery was kept under wraps until Monday when the Greek Culture Ministry announced it to the world as “the most important prehistoric funerary monument to have come to light on mainland Greece in the last 65 years”

The more than 1,400 artifacts recovered from the grave are now at the Archaeological Museum of Chora where they will be conserved and analyzed. Because so many of the pieces seem to have originated in Minoan Crete, archaeologists are hoping the study of the grave goods will give them a new understanding of the trade networks connecting ancient Crete and Mycenaean Greece.


Another hoard whose owner’s name is known

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Last month’s discovery of a hoard with a name scratched in the pot in Bulgaria was a first for me, but that’s just because I didn’t know about the hoard of Republican Roman silver denarii discovered in the 1960s in the archaeological site of Cosa, near modern-day Ansedonia in southern Tuscany.

Cosa was a Latin colonia founded in 273 B.C. on a hill overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a small town of about 13 hectares enclosed by a wall built out of massive polygonal limestone blocks between 273 and 264 B.C. The wall was studded with 18 square towers and three gates which opened onto the main streets of the city. Cosa was designed on an octagonal grid system modified to accommodate the rollercoaster topography of the town: two peaks with a valley between. An arx (citadel) was built on the highest peak inside the walls. This was the religious zone whose most ancient temple was the Auguraculum where auspices were taken. Two other temples were built in the 3rd and 2nd centuries, dedicated to Jupiter and Mater Matuta. The temple of Jupiter was replaced in the second quarter of the 2nd century with the Capitolium, a temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva) modeled after the one in Rome.

From the Capitolium a broad street leads straight to the civic center of the town, a long rectangular piazza accessed by a monumental arch built around 170 B.C. and flanked on three sides by porticoes and surrounded by water channels. This is where you find Cosa’s main public buildings: the forum, the Comitium Curiae where the popular assembly met to vote, pass laws and hold court, the carcer or public prison, the Forum Piscarium where cisterns were built to hold fish for the city’s market. From 197 to 150 B.C., the forum saw a burst of development with the addition of eight commercial atria with shopfronts opening on the piazza, central pool and side rooms. A colonnaded basilica for judiciary use was also built during this period, as was a small temple possibly dedicated to Concordia.

The northwest sector of the city was the residential neighborhood. In the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., most of the houses were a standard size — one block each — with living space on a second storey and modest garden space behind, both floors surrounding a central atrium. About 20 of the 248 private homes were double the size. They were reserved for the decurions, the city senators. In the early 1st century A.D., larger, more luxurious homes were built next to the forum. They are characterized by fine mosaic floors and frescoed walls and an extensive garden. The house of Quintus Fulvius is one of these luxury homes.

Cosa was sacked around 70 B.C., possibly by Tyrrhenian pirates like the ones turned into dolphins by Dionysus when they tried to kidnap him. The town was rebuilt under Augustus Caesar and was occupied at least until the 3rd century. By the early 5th century, it was in ruins. Rutilius Claudius Namatianus, a poet of the late imperial era, mentioned it in the elegiac poem De Reditu Suo documenting his sea voyage home to Gaul from Rome in 416 A.D.:

Then we descry, all unguarded now, desolate Cosa’s ancient ruins and unsightly walls. ‘Tis with a qualm that I adduce mid serious things the comic reason for its downfall; but I am loath to suppress a laugh. The story runs that once upon a time the townsfolk were forced to migrate and left their homes behind because rats infested them! I’d sooner believe in losses suffered by the Pygmies’ infantry and in cranes leagued solemnly to fight their wars.

There is archaeological evidence — pottery, post-imperial construction — of a very reduced human presence in Cosa even after the urban legendary plague of rats, but even that stops by the 7th century at the latest.

The American Academy in Rome began excavating the ruins in 1948, reaching the larger homes in the mid-1960s. The domus had been partially reconstructed in the 1st century B.C. and two pottery fragments from that period were found with “Q. FVL.” inscribed on them, leading archaeologists to hypothesize that the owner of the pottery and the house it was found in was one Quintus Fulvius. The house became known as the House of the Treasure because the excavation unearthed a pot filled with 2,004 silver denarii from the Roman Republic buried in the pantry next to the kitchen.

The oldest coins in the hoard date to the end of the 2nd century B.C., but most of them date to the first third of the 1st century B.C. with the newest ones from 74-72 B.C. They’re in exceptional condition, almost uncirculated, so they must have been buried soon after they were struck. That suggests they went into the ground around 70 B.C., a key date for the town of Cosa. It seems Quintus was stashing his savings to keep them out of pirate hands before fleeing the city, only he never returned to dig them back up.

The amount of money was significant, but still relatively small potatoes compared to the vast sums that passed through the hands of Rome’s richest citizens. Cornelius Nepos reports that the wealthy but frugal Roman banker Titus Pomponius Atticus (110 – 32 B.C.), a close friend of Cicero’s, spent 187.5 denarii a day to keep his household running. A Roman legionary in the late Republic made 120 denarii. A family of four would spend 90 denarii a year on food. A hundred years later in Pompeii just before the eruption a slave cost 625 denarii and a kilo of bread cost 1/8 of a denarius. Savings clearly went a lot further in Cosa than in the big city.

The American Academy in Rome collaborated with the Superintendency for Archaeological Heritage of Tuscany to build an archaeological museum on the site in 1981. The Archaeological Museum of Cosa exhibits the most significant finds excavated from the public buildings, private homes, the port and the necropolis outside the city walls, but until September 20th of this year, the coin hoard was never put on display. It’s a security issue. This handsome masonry structure that could pass for a domus if you squint at it suits its ancient setting very well, but there’s no budget here for impenetrable glass cases, high tech security systems and 24 hour guards. Quintus’ kept his money safe for 2,000 years by burying it in the pantry; the museum is not about to break that streak and hand over his treasure to modern pirates. It does plan to create replicas, however, that will be exhibited alongside the model of Quintus’ home just like the real coins were last month.

Excavations of the site picked up again in 2013 after a long hiatus, and this time digitization is a priority. An international archaeological team is not only documenting the dig and blogging about it with infectious enthusiasm, but they’ve also photographed the entire museum collection and laser scanned a selection of artifacts to create 3D virtual models of them. They’ve also created an ambitious 3D virtual site tour so that people from all over the world can be super jealous of their fascinating work in paradisiacal surroundings.


Roman coin hoard with name on pot found in Sofia

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating Sveta Nedelya square in Sofia, Bulgaria, have discovered a hoard of 2,976 Roman coins in a clay pot with a lid. It’s the largest Roman coin hoard ever found in Sofia, but that’s not the only exceptional thing about this find: the clay pot has a name scratched on its side. The vessel contains 2976 silver denarii from the 1st and 2nd centuries, the earliest from the reign of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79) and the latest from the reign of Emperor Commodus (177-192). There are coins bearing the faces of every Antonine emperor — Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius — and their wives, daughters and sisters — Sabina, Faustina the Elder, Faustina the Younger, Bruttia Crispina and Lucilla.

It was hidden under the floor of an ancient public building and we know who buried it, one Selvius Callistus who had the presence of mind to scratch his name on the pot perhaps to prove ownership should it be disputed when he returned to collect his treasure. Unfortunately these tiny photographs are the only ones I could find and they don’t show the name. Usually that would be a deal-breaker for me — I discard potential stories all the time if there are no good pictures — but I’ve written about a great many coin hoard finds and this is the first one with a name carved on the vessel.

EDIT: Still no shots of the name, but here are some decently sized pictures of the find courtesy of Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova’s Facebook page. Now that I can see them properly, the coins soaking in that blue solution give me the willies. They’re all scrunched together in the foot of what looks like a trifle bowl. Surely cleaning them one at a time, or at least in a tray where they aren’t rubbing against each other, would be more appropriate treatment for 2,000-year-old coins.

Founded by the Thracian Serdi tribe in the 8th century B.C., the city that would become Sofia was called Serdica. It was conquered by the Romans in 29 B.C. who renamed it Ulpia Serdica. Thanks to its location just south of the Danube frontier at the crossroads of several trade routes, the city grew to prominence within the empire. When Diocletian divided the province of Dacia Aureliana into two parts at the end of the 3rd century A.D., Serdica was awarded the status of municipium, the administrative center/capital of the new province of Dacia Mediterranea.

For a short time between 303 and 308 A.D., Serdica had its own imperial mint. The Thessalonica mint had been shut down and its employees moved to Serdica to operate the new mint. Although it was only in operation for five years, the Serdica mint was important while it lasted. Coins struck there bear the mintmark “SM” for sacra moneta (sacred money or mint) which means it was one of very few mints where gold solidi were produced. Most mints struck regular coinage marked “MP” or moneta publica.

The city prospered under Roman rule, even as the Goths and Capri devastated the former Roman province of Dacia north of the Danube (modern-day Romania) in the 3rd century. It was razed by the Huns under Atilla in 447 A.D. during his second campaign against Theodosius and the Easter Roman Empire but was rebuilt a century later by Byzantine emperor Justinian I. In 550, Justinian’s cousin Germanus was based in Serdica where he was assembling an army to wrest Italy from Gothic control. Before he could leave, he had to fight the invading Slavs. The Battle of Serdica was a great victory for the Byzantine Empire, although it only delayed the inevitable a little while.

The hoard and vessel are currently being conserved at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences’ National Institute of Archaeology. They are expected to go on public display on September 17th at the official reopening of the Sofia History Museum in its new location, the restored Central Mineral Baths, a beautiful Vienna Secession style building constructed in the first decade of the 20th century which was a municipal bathhouse until 1986 when it fell into disrepair and was closed out of concern that the roof might collapse on bathers.


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:


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.


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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